Into Thin Air: Aviation Security Force Assistance in Iraq and Afghanistan
George W. Cully, Adapt or Fail: The USAF’s Role in Reconstituting the Iraqi Air Force, 2004-2007 (Air University Press 2017)
Forrest L. Marion, Flight Risk: The Coalition’s Air Advisory Mission in Afghanistan, 2005-2015 (Naval Institute Press 2019)
After fifteen years of trying, why has the US military been unable to build effective and sustainable air forces for either Iraq or Afghanistan? Reading a pair of recently published histories about the U.S. Air Force’s attempts to build air forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and reflecting on my own experience as an advisor to the Afghan Special Mission Wing, my mind kept drifting back to the Aconcagua mountain in Argentina, a place I visited long ago. Of the Seven Summits, the tallest peak on each continent, the 22,841 foot Aconcagua is considered one of the more straightforward mountains to climb. Aspirants do not need any specialized technical skills as there are no actual mountaineering obstacles. Reaching the top is a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, yet many fail to reach the summit. Why? The insidious threats of harsh weather and a lack of oxygen are the real barriers to climbing the Aconcagua. Pretentious climbers unacclimated to high-altitude and outfitted with unsuitable gear are practically guaranteed a fiasco.
Just as the Aconcagua has no physical impediments blocking access to the peak, neither were there external obstacles to creating an Iraqi or Afghan air force. Standing on the airfields at either Kandahar or Balad, one can easily imagine the partner nation’s attack aircraft, transports, and helicopters on the ramp, the fuel trucks circulating around the fleet, the aircrews stepping to one plane and maintainers towing another into a hangar for repair. But, in providing unsuitable aircraft and capabilities to the Iraqis and Afghans and sending military personnel who were unprepared to negotiate the alien cultures, I believe that the United States all but guaranteed failure in these two missions.
The theory behind providing air forces to the Iraqis and Afghans makes sense. With transport aircraft, their security forces can shrink distances and time to quickly respond to insurgent attacks and sustain lengthy ground operations through resupply. Airborne reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities can provide the Iraqis and Afghans critical intelligence and enhance tactical awareness during ground force missions. Air forces can also provide strike and casualty evacuation capabilities.
While a partner nation’s air force cannot replace its army or police during counter-insurgencies, it can provide an asymmetric advantage over destabilizing actors, expand the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of its populace, and reduce the need for the US military to use its aviation resources. With such an intoxicating vision of airpower, who would not have wanted expansive air forces for the Afghans and Iraqis?
Building an air force for a partner nation is different than raising its ground forces, though. Considering the technical, financial, and capital-intensive nature of aviation, the up-front investment of time, money, and sweat is much higher and the payoffs come much later if ever. For countries that lack the experience and tacit know-how needed to maintain and operate fleets of complicated military aircraft, building up their aviation capabilities can feel like pouring resources into a funnel; a lot goes in, drops come out.
Historians George Cully and Forrest Marion offer salient clues to explaining the failures of the aviation security force assistance missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cully’s book, Adapt or Fail, gives an excellent account of the organizational changes that the US Air Force undertook to reorient itself towards rebuilding Iraqi aviation capabilities. It is a story of institutional transformation. Those seeking on-the-ground details of an air advisor mission, however, will find those in Marion’s Flight Risk. Drawing on personal experience, extensive interviews, and records, Marion centers his book in Afghanistan to recount the personal challenges that coalition air advisors faced in mentoring, training, and advising Afghan airmen.
Ambitious dreams of creating not just modest capabilities in Iraq and Afghanistan but well-developed air forces went unrealized for two major reasons. First, as Cully details in Adapt or Fail, the U.S. Air Force was not organized, trained, or equipped for the task, resulting in the provision of unsuitable aircraft and capabilities for the Iraqis. The second reason, Marion tells us in Flight Risk, was that the cultural context was inhospitable to the air advisors, who could not adapt to it. Combined, these two reasons made the dreams near-impossible to realize.
In both countries, the role of rapidly growing a partner’s air force amid insurgencies and weakened local governments was thrust upon the U.S. Air Force, but that kind of job was not one of its core missions. Far from it. Not since the Vietnam War had it undertaken the responsibility of creating a partner nation’s air force to the scale of Iraq and Afghanistan and in the middle of raging insurgencies. Although the U.S. Air Force received assistance from other U.S. military branches — predominately the U.S. Army — and coalition forces, it had no idea how to plan and execute large-scale aviation security force assistance missions. With no institutional memory about how to train, advise, assist, and equip partner air forces under precarious circumstances such as those found in Iraq and Afghanistan, and no plans to do so, predictably, the U.S. military failed.
Adapt or Fail provides a four-year look at the U.S. Air Force’s aviation security force assistance mission in Iraq, starting with its commencement in 2004. Cully details the evolution of the Air Force’s organizations responsible for training, advising, assisting, and equipping foreign partners. The Air Force did not have prepared, experienced advisors ready to deploy, nor did the mission have the attention of its general officers and civilian leaders. Aircraft acquisition decisions for Iraq were made haphazardly, Cully notes.
Decisions about the number and type of aircraft to provide to the partner nation and the structure of sustainment and training contracts carry significant weight in determining a mission’s success. The aircraft and equipment will be in use for years — or decades, hopefully — and make valuable contributions to the partner nation’s security. But providing exquisite airplanes and helicopters that the partner nation can’t maintain, fuel, fly, or afford is a curse whose effects ripple forward in time. U.S. military senior leadership and planners should understand when and how these decisions get made and push for airmen with the right information to be at the table. Cully shows what happens when they are not.
Adapt or Fail traces many of these acquisition decisions for Iraq, including an instructive review of the ill-fated Comp Air 7SLX. The United Arab Emirates gifted and modified several of these kit aircraft, meant to be home-built like a weekend project, to the Iraqis to serve as surveillance platforms. Their airworthiness was highly dubious from the beginning, though. Tragically, one of them crashed in 2005, killing four U.S. airmen and one Iraqi pilot. All of the aircraft had known deficiencies and had not been appropriately flight-tested after their modifications. So why did U.S. advisors pilot aircraft in combat that they would never have been allowed to fly at home?
The U.S. and the Iraqi governments were frantic to bring on an aerial surveillance capability to monitor oil pipelines and had tried out several other slapdash aircraft, which also proved unsuitable, Cully reports. 2005 was a desperate time in the counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism fight against the destabilizing elements causing Iraq to slip away. No doubt senses of urgency and duty compelled U.S. airmen to continue to fly Iraqi aircraft known to be unsafe and unreliable.
Unfortunately, Adapt or Fail only takes the reader through to 2007, just as the U.S. Air Force ramped up the Iraqi advisor effort and finally organized itself for the mission. Cully’s book is about that organizational adaptation at the outset, not about the outcome of the aviation security force assistance mission, which continued even after 2011 when U.S. forces and advisors withdrew from Iraq. Air advisors returned in 2015 to help Iraq fight Islamic State. The sequel was no better.
Coming off the near-decade of internal instability, the U.S. government helped the Iraqis into the seats of thirty-six Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters and out of $2.3 billion in a major arms sale in 2011. A $1.9 billion support contract followed in 2016. By the time the United States restarted its air advisor mission in 2015 to help the Iraqis fight Islamic State, it was too late. Plagued with an advanced fighter aircraft that is difficult to maintain in heat and dust and unsuitable for irregular warfare, the Iraqis mostly failed to contribute to the air campaign against Islamic State.
Examples of aircraft mismatches extend to Afghanistan as well. A scathing 2021 Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction report shows how the U.S. Air Force unwisely purchased twenty G.222 medium-lift transport aircraft for the Afghan air force in 2008. The airplanes proved unsafe, unreliable, and far too challenging for the Afghans to maintain because spare parts were not available. The United States sold the G.222s to an Afghan company for approximately $40,000 in 2014. The total cost of the program? Over $500 million.
These and other acquisitions decisions for Iraq and Afghanistan set up the partner nations and air advisors for failure and demonstrate how unprepared the Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force were to build air forces for Iraq and Afghanistan. Unsuitable aircraft challenged the air advisors who — doubly cursed — found a barren and inhospitable environment waiting for them.
In Flight Risk, Marion leverages nearly two years spent with the coalition air advisors in Afghanistan as an official historian during the tumultuous period of 2009-2012. He guides the reader through an insightful decade-long tour of the mission focusing on the interactions between the air advisors and the Afghan airmen. The killing of nine air advisors by an Afghan air force officer in April 2011, the commencement of a two-year high-water period of insider attacks throughout Afghanistan, punctuates the story. That attack and its aftermath dramatically changed the air advisor mission, driving a permanent wedge of security and suspicion between the advisors and the Afghans. Ever since the insider attack, the advisor environment became “cold war, no trust,” as one commander put it to Marion.
Marion’s longer arc allows for a weighing of the evidence. His conclusions ought to lower the ambitions of future policymakers and strategists. Throughout the book, Marion gives exhaustive examples of the air advisors’ quixotic emphasis on professionalizing their Afghan counterparts and instituting a robust centralized command-and-control system. Many advisors sincerely believed, Marion reports, that the idea of professionalization was a culturally neutral concept and an ideal that transcended time and geography when, in actuality, professionalization meant westernizing the Afghans. Over and over again, advisors expressed frustration with the Afghan airmen when they failed to show up for work, shirked their duties, or obstructed change. These behaviors, according to Marion, were due to the prevailing Afghan culture. Even when advisors claimed to understand that they were operating in a different culture, their enduring use of the term “professionalize” showed otherwise.
One fundamental Afghan practice, odious to the air advisors, was the process by which Afghan aircraft and crews were tasked for non-military missions on short notice, secretively, and often directly from generals or political leaders. Frequently, the Afghan aviators I advised at the Special Mission Wing were tasked via calls to their cell phones by leaders in the Ministry of Defense and military, too. Power brokers in the Afghan government didn’t necessarily view the aviation assets, particularly the Mi-17 helicopters, as Afghan but instead saw the aircraft as means to benefit themselves and their tribes. According to Marion, advisors believed that Afghan leaders routinely co-opted crews and aircraft for their own, often illicit, purposes and circumvented advisor-imposed processes with impunity. While we could not blame the Afghans for following orders, even those delivered by cell phone call, the situation was untenable. When the aircraft misuse and overtasking at the Special Mission Wing finally led to an exhausted Afghan crew crashing an Mi-17 on the ramp at Kandahar, our commanding general ordered us to “take away the keys” like a dad punishing an irresponsible teenager. While I thought that the Afghan crews would be upset with us, they were not. They were happy about the intervention, and everything was good for a while. Then the problems started creeping back in again.
As Marion notes, advisors viewed this issue of command and control as a significant problem and ceaselessly tried to persuade or reason the Afghans into doing things the American way. Marion asks, provocatively, why did we design an air force for Afghans that required a westernized command-and-control system? Shouldn’t advisors and planners have developed an air force considering the rampant corruption in Afghanistan, a problem that American leaders routinely describe as cancerous?
The Afghan air force had fewer than 20 aircraft in 2006, Marion reports, more than they could fly and maintain at the time. But by 2014, that inventory ballooned up to 90 aircraft, numbers well above what air advisors could retain control over. As the coalition air advisors tried to build an expansive and sustainable air force in Afghanistan, the local culture bogged down the effort. Instead, American defense planners created ample opportunity for criminal networks to use the aircraft to facilitate the opium trade. Since 2010, the United States has spent over $8.5 billion to develop the Afghan air force. Making extravagant aviation resources available to the Afghans without accountability may have fueled the very same corruption that stymied the air advisor mission, implies Marion.
While Iraqi culture and society were not quite as distant to the air advisors, building the Iraqi air force was a Sisyphean struggle, too. In trying to surmount a steep language barrier and a complex social structure, air advisors were significantly disadvantaged as the Iraqis were skilled at exploiting American impatience. Knowing that the air advisors were under tremendous pressure, Iraqi airmen were happy to wait until the last minute to see if the Americans would relieve them of their responsibilities such as purchasing services and equipment or planning an operation. The American commander who reestablished the air advisor mission in Iraq in 2015 recounted to me that walking into the Iraqi C-130 hangar was like walking into 2011. All the maintenance records in the file cabinets and all the whiteboards with aircraft status and scheduling information had been left untouched, frozen in time since the air advisors left with the rest of the American forces. The Iraqi air force practiced little of what the U.S. military had taught and trained them to do.
As the only two books written about the U.S. military’s attempts to build air forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, Adapt or Fail and Flight Risk are canonical, by default. Each complements the other and, when read together, provides a fuller picture as to why the United States — after spending such an enormous amount of time and money — fell so short of its aim. Adapt or Fail and Flight Risk also make clear that the blame for the American failure to build air forces in Iraq and Afghanistan does not rest with the partner nations, nor with the unprepared and ill-equipped U.S. Air Force.
Responsibility rests with the policymakers. It rests with those who wasted billions of dollars buying incompatible aircraft for the Iraqi and Afghan air forces and then expected air advisors to carry those loads up the trail. Although the high mountain had a seemingly straightforward path to the top, the thin air subdued the people sent by the U.S. military. The next time the United States decides to build military aviation capabilities for a culturally remote country in the middle of an insurgency, its goals should be kept modest and humble. In those circumstances, the aim should be to reach base camp safely instead of collapsing en route to the summit.
Dedicated to the memory of Lt Col Jerome “Jerry” Klingaman, U.S. Air Force (1934- 2021), who covertly advised the Laotian air force in the 1960s and helped to resurrect U.S. special operations air advising nearly three decades later. The warning — found in his Coyote Rules — that “most of us come to grief because we want too much” remains true today. He will be missed.
Tobias Switzer is a U.S. Air Force combat aviation advisor, foreign area officer, and Olmsted Scholar. He previously advised the Afghan Special Mission Wing as the commander of a special operations advisor team in Kabul from 2017-2018. He is currently a military fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the cost of the G.222 program was in excess of $500 billion. The correct figure is in excess of $500 million.