Afghan air force ascent slow, imperiling battle with Taliban

Afghan Air Force crew loads ammunition on a helicopter before flight at the military airport in Kabul December 18, 2014. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

(Reuters) – Afghanistan’s armed forces are so short of combat-ready aircraft that, late last year, they began fitting machine guns and rockets to Russian-made Mi-17 transport helicopters, dubbed “flying tractors”, to bolster their air power.

With new planes capable of engaging Taliban insurgents delayed by over two years, and NATO air missions backing up troops on the ground now at a minimum, the fledgling Afghan Air Force is scrambling to provide even basic support.

That is a worry for 350,000 police, soldiers and other security personnel fighting militants across the country and dying at a rate of around 100 every week in the heaviest fighting of a 13-year conflict.

Without air support they say they will struggle to defeat the enemy, especially now that tens of thousands of foreign troops supporting them have ended their mission.

NATO is training and advising some 390 Afghan pilots, most with no tactical combat experience, and a limited number of planes and helicopters have been promised to bolster an air force of around 140 aircraft, mostly transport helicopters…