Afghanistan's fledgling air force is scrambling to prepare to take control of the country's airspace. But while expectations are high, the force is having trouble getting off the ground.
Air power has proved crucial in rugged Afghanistan, where road networks are poor and often mined by militants. Afghan and international ground forces have relied heavily on NATO's massive fleet of fighter jets, assault helicopters, and cargo aircraft to attack militants, provide surveillance, and carry personnel to and from the battlefield.
With NATO troops expected to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the alliance has been arming and training its eventual replacement, the Afghan Air Force, in order to leave behind a force capable of maintaining control of the country's airspace. But development of the 352,000-strong Afghan National Army and National Police has taken the highest priority, stunting the air force's growth.
The development of the air force is being watched closely. There are fears that without crucial NATO air power the Afghan security forces will struggle to keep the Taliban at bay without a fully functioning air force of its own.
NATO has set ambitious targets for Afghanistan's air force, which was created in 2007. It expects the force to be fully operational by the end of 2016, with 8,000 personnel and some 200 aircraft. But those goals are looking lofty, considering the current chronic shortage of operational aircraft and trained Afghan pilots.
That has set off alarm bells in Kabul. The Afghan government has pressed hard to convince the United States to speed up training and to boost Kabul's air capability by supplying the country's air force with advanced aircraft and equipment.
General Mohammad Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, says that in order for Afghanistan to defend itself and its airspace, a self-sufficient air force must be made a priority.
"The Afghan Air Force suffers from many shortcomings," Azimi says. "In particular, we don't have fighter jets to support ground troops and protect our airspace. We also don't have any reconnaissance or surveillance capabilities, or an air-defense system."
WATCH: NATO released this video showing troops training members of the Afghan Air Force at the Shindand Air Base in Herat Province as the coalition prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The Afghan Air Force is expected to reach full operational capacity by 2017.
To boost the Afghan Air Force's capabilities, the U.S. Air Force signed a $427 million contract with U.S.-based Sierra Nevada Corporation in March to provide 20 light-attack aircraft. The A-29 Super Tucano turboprop plane will be built by Brazilian subcontractor Embraer and is expected to be delivered by the end of next year.
The Afghan Air Force will also receive at least four C-130 Hercules transport planes within the next two years.
Those arrivals will complements Afghanistan's current fleet, which consists of about 50 operational aircraft, including 40 Russian Mi-17 transport helicopters and seven Mi-35 Hind attack helicopters. It also has transport aircraft, including 16 Italian-made C-27s, although many have been grounded or removed from service due to issues with safety, maintenance, and a lack of spare parts.
Meanwhile, the Afghan Air Force has only around 6,000 personnel, with many recruits often turned away because they cannot meet literacy requirements.
The air force's ranks include only a small team of trained pilots, many of them veterans from the Soviet era. Around 150 Afghan pilots are being trained inside Afghanistan and abroad, mostly in the United States and the Czech Republic.
Mark Young, president of Defense Technology Inc., an Alabama-based company providing aviation support services to the U.S. government in Afghanistan, says Afghanistan will not have a fully functioning air force for at least another decade.
Young says even if Afghanistan's air force was to reach its goals, the force would not be sufficient to protect Afghanistan considering the country's size and militant threat. And, he notes, Afghanistan will likely struggle to fund an independent air force.
"What [the United States has] given them they can't afford. It would take half of their defense budget just to keep those aircrafts flying," Young says. "Plus, we fly thousands of missions over there and they don't have the aircraft to do that either. I think their air force is largely going to be a special-missions air force. It's going to move the president and elected officials, help when there's a disaster, and help move ballots during the votes. But it will not be a true cornerstone of their national defense."
Air Force Major General H.D. Jake Polumbo Jr., director of the NATO ISAF mission's Air Component Coordination Element in Afghanistan, has conceded that the capacity of the Afghan Air Force is "still very limited" and it needs the continued support of NATO to be able to conduct independent air surveillance, air support, and mobility operations.
Speaking via video teleconference from his headquarters in Kabul on April 23, Polumbo said NATO's air-power assets would draw down at a "lower slope" than ground forces. He also said the United States would maintain some sort of air presence after 2014, including support from bases and navy aircraft carriers in the region, and the use of unmanned drones.
Lieutenant Colonel Brandon Deacon, the commander of the 438th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron based in Kabul, says that despite its weaknesses the Afghan Air Force has plenty of strengths, including strong leadership and motivation.
"Their biggest strength is their motivation," Deacon says. "They seem to me to be very grateful to have our assistance and they're also very receptive to our ideas. I think a lot of the air crew perform very well and they're doing a lot of missions on their own."
The Afghan Air Force has conducted winter resupply missions to remote Afghan army locations in the east, provided direct support to border police, and conducted independent air assaults into Taliban-controlled areas.
Washington and Kabul are currently in talks over a residual U.S. military presence that may remain in Afghanistan after 2014. Aircraft and weaponry to the Afghan military is likely to be subject to negotiations over the Status of Forces Agreement.
There are currently 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. That number is expected to drop to around 32,000 by February. The United States is expected to keep somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 troops to advise Afghan security forces after the combat mission ends in December 2014.
Written and reported by Frud Bezhan, with additional reporting by RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Ahmad Zhakfar