DID YOU KNOW THAT THE U.S. BUILDS AFGHAN AIR BASE BUT WHERE ARE THE PLANES?
A new headquarters is being built at the Shindand air base in Afghanistan. But orders for warplanes promised by the United States are delayed and the Afghan Air Force is unlikely to be fully functional until 2017. WSJ's Nathan Hodge reports.
SHINDAND, Afghanistan—Shindand Air Base has an 8,000-foot runway, a gleaming new headquarters complex and a cadre of motivated Afghan pilot candidates.
Because of the way Washington operates, however, it lacks warplanes.
The budding Afghan air force was supposed to receive $355 million worth of planes custom-made for fighting guerrillas well ahead of the U.S. withdrawal in 2014. Equipped with machine guns, missiles and bombs, those reliable, rugged turboprop aircraft are cheaper to operate and easier to maintain than fighter jets.
An Afghan soldier stands guard near an aircraft donated by the U.S. to the Afghan air force at an air base in western Afghanistan.
The Afghans won't get the planes on time. The Air Force initially awarded a contract to a U.S. company to supply Brazilian-designed planes. But it canceled the contract after a Kansas-based plane maker filed suit to block it, and the Air Force decided the contract had insufficient documentation. The Kansas congressional delegation also lobbied hard against the Brazilian plane. The Air Force has started the bidding process again, and a new contract likely won't be awarded until next year.
Afghanistan is unlikely to gain an independent, fully functioning air force until around 2016 or 2017, two to three years after the U.S. pullout, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Timothy Ray, who heads the NATO air training command in Afghanistan.
"They have wasted the most precious commodity they have in combat, which is time," says Edward Timperlake, a former Marine Corps fighter pilot who served as a director of technology assessment at the Pentagon until 2009 and is now retired.
Problems with the Afghan warplanes add to a separate controversy over a $275 million fleet of U.S.-provided C-27A cargo planes that has remained grounded for months because of lack of maintenance and spare parts, information first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
At a meeting with President Hamid Karzai and security officials in late May, the Afghan military expressed "unease" over the slow pace of the air force's revival and asked for urgent talks with the U.S. and allies to tackle the issue, according to a presidential statement.
The remnants of Soviet-made fighter jets at Shindand Air Base.
Obtaining these attack planes "is very important for us in order to support our infantry, the army on the ground," says Afghan Lt. Gen. Mohammad Dawran, chief of staff for the Afghan air force, in an interview. "We desperately need to intensify the capacity of our air force."
Air power is essential for policing Afghanistan, a mountainous land with forbidding terrain, harsh weather and few roads. Recent events have underscored its importance in quelling the insurgency. When the Taliban staged attacks in Kabul and across the country in April, Afghan security forces managed to end the assault thanks to U.S. air support.
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