U.S. Builds Afghan Air Base, but Where Are the Planes?
Shindand Air Base has an 8,000-foot runway, a gleaming new headquarters complex and a cadre of motivated Afghan pilot candidates.
Because of the way Washington operates, however, it lacks warplanes.
The budding Afghan air force was supposed to receive $355 million worth of planes custom-made for fighting guerrillas well ahead of the U.S. withdrawal in 2014. Equipped with machine guns, missiles and bombs, those reliable, rugged turboprop aircraft are cheaper to operate and easier to maintain than fighter jets.
The Afghans won't get the planes on time. The Air Force initially awarded a contract to a U.S. company to supply Brazilian-designed planes. But it canceled the contract after a Kansas-based plane maker filed suit to block it, and the Air Force decided the contract had insufficient documentation. The Kansas congressional delegation also lobbied hard against the Brazilian plane. The Air Force has started the bidding process again, and a new contract likely won't be awarded until next year.
Afghanistan is unlikely to gain an independent, fully functioning air force until around 2016 or 2017, two to three years after the U.S. pullout, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Timothy Ray, who heads the NATO air training command in Afghanistan.
"They have wasted the most precious commodity they have in combat, which is time," says Edward Timperlake, a former Marine Corps fighter pilot who served as a director of technology assessment at the Pentagon until 2009 and is now retired.