CENTCOM Aiming to Build Afghan Air Force into a Key “Offensive Capability”

US Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of US Central Command, speaks Tuesday at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Screenshot photo

US forces in Afghanistan are building up the Afghan Air Force, along with Afghan special operations forces, to serve as the “offensive capability” for that government to use as the lead in targeting the Taliban, the head of US operations in the Middle East said Tuesday.

The US wants to double the size of Afghanistan’s special operations forces and continue to increase Afghan Air Force capabilities through more A-29 attack aircraft and UH-60 Black Hawks, to “focus on gaining the control of population and areas we need to” in the face of a Taliban that has resurged in the country, US Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of US Central Command, said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday.

In addition to strengthening these two forces, the US needs to strengthen the Afghan National Army as a hold force to keep these gains, and to try to make the Afghan police forces “more competent in policing functions,” Votel said.

The Afghan Air Force plans to eventually have 159 Black Hawks to replace its aging Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters. It also expects to have a total of 20 A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft by the end of this year, along with a growing fleet of MD-530 attack helicopters, C-208 airlifters, AC-208 attack versions of those airfliters, and a small fleet of C-130s.

In the meantime, US aircraft are using increased authorities to continue its offensive targeting the Taliban’s drug infrastructure, Votel said. US forces learned lessons from Operation Inherent Resolve, where aircraft targeted oil production facilities held by ISIS and depleted the group’s revenue.

The Taliban is “well resourced” by its narcotics trafficking efforts, so US aircraft are targeting their production and storage locations and working with other countries in the region to limit the flow of drugs out of Afghanistan, he said.