The evacuation of Kabul airport in August two years ago remains a clear and uncomfortable memory. It signalled the humiliating end of 20 years of US and NATO military involvement in Afghanistan, a sad end to a noble attempt to bring peace and stability to the country. That failure is even more unfortunate when one considers that the Soviets had a very similar experience in the 1980s – as did the British in the 1840s; indeed, it seems that no-one thought to learn the lessons of the previous attempts. However, the successful evacuation of foreigners by air from Kabul did repeat a historical precedent: it was something that the British had achieved in 1928. So, if the politicians and strategic planners had learnt nothing from history, maybe the air forces had?
I have written this book to record the employment of military aircraft over Afghanistan from the first campaigns by the RAF in 1919 and 1928, through the Soviet occupation between 1979 and 1989 and the US/ NATO occupation from 2001 until 2021. The geography and topography of Afghanistan is such that air power is a necessity in military operations: with little surface transport infrastructure in the country, any military force is dependent on air transport to keep it supplied, and on aircraft to provide real-time reconnaissance and intelligence. Only the firepower of the aeroplane and (from the 1980s) the helicopter can reach across the vast distances and mountainous terrain to provide offensive support to ground troops. British air power played a critical role in the defeat of Afghan forces in the third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919, which in turn inspired the formation of the Afghan Air Force. British air power also enabled the rescue of 586 people of 11 different nationalities from Kabul through the foothills of the Himalayas to India over the winter of 1928/29 during the uprising in Afghanistan – an incredible achievement considering the primitive aircraft of the day.
It was the Soviets who first set up a resupply and reinforcement airlift into Afghanistan, using large transport aircraft to bring personnel and materiel into the country, then using a fleet of smaller aircraft and helicopters to deliver to the network of outposts scattered across the country. During its ten-year campaign in Afghanistan, the Soviet Army relied heavily on transport helicopters to insert ground troops into position for assaults on guerrilla forces, and on gunship helicopters to support these operations. Fast jets were used for reconnaissance, as well as for airstrikes on enemy positions. This was a war for which the Soviet Air Force had not trained, but it was sufficiently flexible to learn many of the lessons of the early days of the war and adapt its tactics and training accordingly. Despite the threat from man portable surface-to-air missiles and the limitations of navigation and weapon aiming systems, the jets and helicopters worked reasonably well at a tactical level. However, attempts at carpet bombing by heavy bombers proved to be completely ineffectual.
Twenty years later the Americans with their coalition partners built on the Soviet model, benefitting from two decades of improved technology. And whereas the Soviets had to start from scratch, by the time that the US-led air forces started flying over Afghanistan, they already had ten years of operational experience working together in shooting wars in the Middle East and over the Balkans. Despite the many challenges of climate and geography, air power was thus a remarkably efficient international concern. This period saw the widespread use of precision-guided weapons as well as the introduction of remotely piloted air systems (drones) and the use of sophisticated electronic intelligence-gathering and electronic warfare techniques. This time, long-range heavy bombers dropping precision-guided munitions proved to be very effective at supporting troops on the ground.
The exit strategy chosen by the Americans was to rebuild the Afghan Army and Air Force and hand over responsibility for the security of the country to the indigenous forces. The Afghan Air Force was re-equipped with aircraft chosen and funded by the USA, but neither the capabilities of these aircraft nor their quantity was really sufficient to make this plan realistic. The importance of air support was such that when US and NATO air forces were withdrawn from the country, the local air force could not fill the void, and the collapse of the Afghan Army – and hence the government – became inevitable.
Supporting the written word, the many images in this book provide a rich illustration of how military aircraft were used by Soviet, American, NATO and Afghan air forces over Afghanistan during the 30 years of ‘hot’ operations. The images cover the many and varied aircraft types that saw use in the country. I hope that the reader will gain a good understanding of the challenges facing aviators in Afghanistan and be able to see how the use of air power developed in the country, thus gaining a good overall understanding of the various campaigns – and, in particular, to see the evacuation of two years ago in proper perspective.
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