Aust helping Afghan Air Force make inroads

The Afghan Air Force, armed with new light-attack aircraft and aided by Australian advisers, has launched an aggressive campaign that will intensify over the summer fighting season after losing territory to Taliban insurgents.

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For the first time in 15 years, government forces have an arsenal of their own attack aircraft and helicopter gunships to pursue and take out enemy insurgents and their camps, following the delivery of eight A-29 Super Tucano fighter planes earlier this year.

The first four A-29s, delivered in January, began flying missions in recent weeks.

RAAF Group Captain Terry Deeth, who leads a team of Australian mentors who advise the Afghan Air Force (AAF), says they’ve had an immediate impact.

While details of their operations are sensitive, Group Capt Deeth said the new A-29s, which can be armed with two 226kg bombs (including precision-guided munitions) and twin .50-calibre machine guns and rockets, had “been successful in their activities”.

“Relatively recently, in the last couple of weeks, their new A-29 attack aircraft have had their first combat here in Afghanistan,” Group Capt Deeth said.

“They’ve been more (successful) than what we would otherwise had hoped for with the young pilots that are flying those aircraft.”

The arrival of the A-29s, after the earlier delivery of 13 MD-530 helicopter gunships, is timely, after a blast last week in Kabul signalled the beginning of the Taliban’s annual spring offensive.

The attack last Tuesday in central Kabul during the morning rush hour, which killed at least 64 people and wounded scores more, came two days after the United Nations said civilian casualties in Afghanistan for the first three months of 2016 were two per cent higher than in the same period of 2015.

There were more than 11,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan last year, the highest number since 2001. And the Taliban holds more territory than it has at any time since 2001.

Four more A-29s are slated for delivery in 2017 and the remaining eight will be handed over to the AAF by the end of 2018, bringing up the total number of A-29 to 20. The planes were funded by the United States Air Force at a cost of $US427 million ($A553.53 million).

The Afghan armed forces also now have observation drones that have begun working in Helmand, which will come online in other parts of the country as the year progresses.

Group Capt Deeth said the missions would intensify as the summer fighting season unfolds.

“We’re confident they’re going to go from strength to strength with the capabilities they’re bringing onboard, that A-29s, the MD-530s,” he said.

“As their capacity grows, I think that you’ll find that there’ll be more intense activities with the new aircraft types that they’ve got.”

Brigadier-General Charles Cleveland, the top spokesman for Resolute Support, the NATO mission in Afghanistan, said the A-29s had already made a difference.

“It’s early in the fight but we think they will (continue to make a difference),” he said, as had the MD-530s that came online last year.

“They are used very often and aggressively and those have been very effective,” he said.

Group Capt Deeth said he was unable to put a timeline on the length of the Australian mission to train, advise and assist the AAF.

“But we as Australians, the NATO and the coalition have been in it for the long haul and so I see that going into the future,” he said.