By Capt. Jeff M. Nagan, 438th Air Expeditionary Wing
/ Published May 26, 2015
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- Although headquartered in Kabul, Train, Advise, Assist Command – Air also has a group of less than 40 U.S. Airmen and Soldiers in Kandahar performing the same mission of building a professional, capable and sustainable Afghan Air Force.
The members of TAAC-Air at Kandahar Air Field travel to the Kandahar Air Wing nearly each day to advise their Afghan counterparts in a variety of specialties, ranging from aircraft maintenance to security forces.
“Advising is a difficult mission, but I like the challenge of it,” said Tech. Sgt. Courtois, TAAC-Air Mi-17 maintenance advisor. “I don’t think this mission is for everybody. If you come here not caring about making a difference, you’re not going to do a thing, and you won’t get anything done.”
The small group of advisors has developed a tight bond, having to depend on each other to perform the mission, said Courtois, from Elizabethtown, Ky. The absence of one individual does impact the mission, but to mitigate this, everyone must be familiar with each other’s roles, responsibilities and advisory progress.
The need to provide individual security, also referred to as guardian angel, also poses unique challenges to the small Kandahar unit, said Tech. Sgt. James Arent, TAAC-Air security forces advisor. Every time Airmen advise, they must rely on one of a peer to provide added security, but this also means another individual is pulled away from his or her job.
“Sometimes the greatest challenge is getting the support for the simple things, like people and manning,” said Staff Sgt. David Rasmussen, TAAC-Air Mi-17 flight engineer and gunnery advisor. “In the case of my section, it’s such a small group, one extra person would be a 20 percent rise in manning. When you put things into percentage perspective, it makes everything else a lot less trivial.”
Despite the challenges, the advisors continue to remain motivated by the progress they see every day working with the Afghan Air Force, said Rasmussen, who hails from Radcliff, Ky. From the smallest accomplishments to the larger achievements, the success of the Afghan Air Force in Kandahar is indicative of the efforts of the U.S. advisors.
“The one thing that motivates me is seeing them succeed,” said Rasmussen, who is deployed from the 37th Helicopter Squadron, F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wy. “They’re succeeding, developing their own air force and fighting for themselves.”
From an operational perspective, the Kandahar Air Wing has taken on more responsibility, added Rasmussen. They provide vital resupply, aerial fires and casualty evacuation in support of Afghan ground forces.
“It’s surprising how unafraid they are,” said Rasmussen, speaking about Afghan aircrews. “They’re bold in their maneuvering and their willingness to get close to the fight. They’re a great asset for Afghanistan. They’ll move heaven and earth to pull human remains out, and they’re starting to get to the point where they’re doing that for injured people as well.”
Additionally, aircrews have matured, considering everyone’s role and importance in accomplishing the mission, said Rasmussen. Although pilots are responsible for flying the aircraft, they have to depend on “backenders” to ensure it stays in the air.
“They’ve departed from the Russian mentality of flying, where the pilot knows all—now it’s a crew concept.” said Rasmussen. “The two enlisted guys in the back and the two pilots now work together as a team. The pilots realize that an aircraft operates as a whole, not as compartments, and they’re in just as much danger as the rest of the crew, and they’re worth as much.”
Not too long ago Afghan pilots would make excuses for everything wrong with a mission, but today’s aircrews are accepting their limitations, inabilities and deficiencies and are actively working to correct them, said Rasmussen. This ownership creates a more competent and skillful pilot.
“They surprise me every day,” said Courtois, who is deployed from the 23rd Maintenance Group, Moody Air Force Base, Ga. “Maybe because you speak a different language, you don’t know what they’re thinking about. Everybody is so ready to tell them what to do. But most of the time they already know what they’re going to do.”
On the Mi-17 maintenance front, the Kandahar Air Wing is making strides, said Courtois. The Afghan maintainers are making progress toward maintenance autonomy.
“They definitely have the 50-hour inspection down,” said Courtois. “The 100-hour inspection is twice the time and twice the effort, and they’re able to almost do that by themselves.”
Many of the maintainers have been working on the Mi-17 for years, said Courtois. Other aircraft, such as the C-208, are relatively new in the Afghan Air Force, and it will take time for maintenance to mature.
In other areas, such as security forces, the Afghans require less advisement, said Arent, from The Colony, Texas. However, advisors look for opportunities to expand their capabilities.
Just a few weeks ago, while senior Afghan security forces officers were on a mission, TAAC-Air advisors provided training to the remaining noncommissioned officers, who in turn provided training to their subordinates.
“We did a quick lesson over vehicle searches,” said Arent, deployed from the 377th Weapon Systems Security Squadron, Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. “We had an NCO teach his soldiers how to conduct searches on the vehicles. That was a pretty big success.”
“Ultimately, the goal of TAAC-Air advisors is to work themselves out of job, having the Afghan Air Force stand on its own as a professional and capable military,” said Courtois. However, for the time being, Kandahar still requires the few, dedicated Airmen and Soldiers who continue to train, advise, and assist the Afghan Air Force.
“If we do a good enough job here, and we’re able to ensure they’re self-sufficient, it’s preventing additional Americans from having to come over here and put their lives in danger,” said Arent. “If I get up every day and put my uniform on and do the best I can, there’s a possibility that someone else doesn’t have to come over here.”