Academic journal article Air Power History

The Destruction and Rebuilding of the Afghan Air Force, 1989-2009

Academic journal article Air Power History

The Destruction and Rebuilding of the Afghan Air Force, 1989-2009

Article excerpt

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In May 1919, during the brief Third Anglo-Afghan War, the Royal Air Force (RAF) employed a lone Handley Page V/1500 to bomb the palace in Kabul. Although little physical damage resulted, the bombing caused great distress among the city's residents. One author noted that "the women of the royal harem rushed on to the streets in terror." Within days, Afghanistan's King Amanullah Khan had called for a truce. Moreover, he also began planning to create his own air force. In the 1920s, Amanullah accepted a small number of aircraft from the Soviets, Italians, and British and sent Afghan pilot candidates to the Soviet Union and Italy for training. (1)

A rebellion in 1928-1929, proved nearly catastrophic for the young Afghan air force and led to Amanullah's abdication. When order was restored, only a few Soviet-built biplanes remained serviceable, and the majority of pilots in Afghanistan-actually Soviet airmen had departed Kabul. For most of the 1930s, the Afghan air arm remained on its own and managed to maintain only a few aircraft in flying condition. (2)

In the late 1930s, the Afghan government purchased new aircraft, mostly light bombers, from the British and Italians. In 1939, the air force maintained thirty-four flyable aircraft, mostly British Hawker Hinds and Italian IMAM Ro.37s. Despite Afghanistan's neutrality, World War II took a toll on the Afghan air force. Logistical issues became insurmountable, and foreign support dropped off. (3)

By 1947, the Royal Afghan Air Force's main role was internal policing, that is, counterinsurgency; the air arm remained small, flying largely obsolete aircraft. In 1955, a renewed relationship with the Soviet Union brought newer aircraft and reflected Soviet influence on the Afghans' air organization, materiel, and base infrastructure. Among the Soviet aircraft obtained were MiG-17 fighters, I1-28 bombers, and I1-14 and An-2 transports, plus trainers and helicopters. By 1960, the air force boasted at least 100 combat aircraft, including transports and helicopters. Afghan air force personnel attended Soviet schools and training courses. (4)

From the mid-1960s to mid-1970s, the Afghan air force increased its inventory of MiG-21s and Mi-8 helicopters, in particular. For at least the next two decades the MiG-21s, of which the Afghans received several models, served as Afghanistan's frontline fighters. The Mi-8 "Hip" helicopters also performed yeoman duty for decades. The air force's major airfields were at Kabul, Bagram, Mazar-iSharif, Jalalabad, and Kandahar. (5)

In 1973, former prime minister Mohammad Daoud took control of the government in a blood less coup, ending the monarchy. Daoud's tenure lasted five years, ending in his death in 1978, in the coup that established the communist "Democratic Republic of Afghanistan." One of Afghanistan's leading airmen, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Zahir, recalled in his retirement that the air force had doubled in size under Daoud, from 200 to 400 aircraft. (6) The increase included several newer aircraft types: several models of the MiG-21; and the Su-7 fighter, An-26 transport, and Mil Mi-8 helicopter. For the most part, while the more modern fighters replaced the older MiG-17s and earlier MiG-21 models, the An-26s replaced older An-2s and Mi-8s replaced the 1950s-era Mi-4s. (7)

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By the end of 1978, Afghans increasingly were in rebellion against the reforms the new communist regime intended to impose. In March 1979, during an uprising in the western city of Herat, Afghan I1-28 bombers were called upon to attack the rebels. Although the I1-28s were antiquated aircraft, their performance proved to be the deadliest of Afghan air power in the country's history to that time. (8)

The decade that began with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, witnessed the increase of the Afghan air force to an unprecedented size in the country's history, by some estimates upwards of 500 aircraft. …

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