SHINDAND, Afghanistan—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.
Problems with the Afghan warplanes add to a separate controversy over a $275 million fleet of U.S.-provided C-27A cargo planes that has remained grounded for months because of lack of maintenance and spare parts, information first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
At a meeting with President Hamid Karzai and security officials in late May, the Afghan military expressed "unease" over the slow pace of the air force's revival and asked for urgent talks with the U.S. and allies to tackle the issue, according to a presidential statement.
Obtaining these attack planes "is very important for us in order to support our infantry, the army on the ground," says Afghan Lt. Gen. Mohammad Dawran, chief of staff for the Afghan air force, in an interview. "We desperately need to intensify the capacity of our air force."
Air power is essential for policing Afghanistan, a mountainous land with forbidding terrain, harsh weather and few roads. Recent events have underscored its importance in quelling the insurgency. When the Taliban staged attacks in Kabul and across the country in April, Afghan security forces managed to end the assault thanks to U.S. air support.
The country's previous occupiers knew this well: As the Soviets withdrew in 1989, they left to the Afghans over 400 military aircraft, including over 200 Soviet-made fighter jets. Remnants of that defunct air force—rusting supersonic Su-22 attack planes, bullet-perforated Mi-6 heavy lift helicopters—now litter the boneyard of Shindand, the hub of the Afghan air force near the Iranian border.
Maj. Gen. Mohammad Baqi, the top Afghan air force commander at Shindand, likes to bring young Afghan trainees here for a history lesson. The scrap heap, he says, is a reminder of "what a strong air force we had" before the base was battered by Afghanistan's civil war, and before its runway was cratered by U.S. bombs during the 2001 campaign to oust the Taliban.
"We don't want the same thing to happen to our new air force that happened to the last one," he says.
Across from the Shindand scrap heap these days, hundreds of Afghan construction workers in hard hats and reflective vests are putting the finishing touches on a headquarters facility for the Afghan air force. Concrete for aircraft parking spaces is freshly poured; dormitories for enlisted personnel are coated with canary-yellow paint; and spacious new aircraft hangars with curved roofs rise over the flight line.
U.S. Air Force Col. John Hokaj, until recently the commander of the advisory group that helps oversee the training of Afghan aviators, had signs placed in front of the construction site advertising it as the "home of the Afghan air force," a gesture to Afghanistan's sovereignty.
All told, the U.S. has spent nearly $300 million on upgrading the Shindand facilities. The base has a brand-new fleet of small fixed-wing aircraft: Six Cessna C-182T training planes and 12 Cessna C-208B short-haul transports, both propeller-driven aircraft painted in military gray with Afghan air force livery.
Young Afghan helicopter pilots are flying the MD-530F, high-performance training helicopters made by MD Helicopters Inc. of Mesa, Ariz. They eventually graduate to the Russian-made Mi-17, a workhorse transport chopper.
Shindand's training program, Gen. Baqi said, was on track to turn out a competent new group of pilots. Problem is these pilots will have no actual aircraft for close-air support missions once their training is completed.
"We have a commando unit here, we have a police garrison, we have district center police; whenever they need air support they ask us and we say, 'Oh, this is a training unit, we don't have any air support,' " the Afghan general lamented.
The U.S. Air Force was supposed to be remedying that situation by now. At the height of the Iraq war, as the conflict in Afghanistan simmered, the Air Force began studying options for "counterinsurgency" aircraft, light planes equipped with sensors and weapons that could provide affordable close-air support. One of the best-known options on the market was a Brazilian-made plane, the Super Tucano. The rugged fighter plane is flown by the militaries of Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Colombia, where it is used in counterinsurgency and drug-interdiction missions similar to those required by Afghanistan.
Sierra Nevada Corp., based in Sparks, Nev., joined with Brazil-based Embraer SA ERJ -1.41% in 2010 to offer the Super Tucano to the Air Force. Rival aircraft manufacturer Hawker Beechcraft Corp., based in Wichita, Kan., offered the AT-6, a modified version of a plane that the U.S. military currently operates as a basic trainer for Air Force and Navy pilots.
In 2009, Sen. Sam Brownback and Rep. Todd Tiahrt, both Republicans of Kansas, sent a letter to then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates voicing "strong and unequivocal objection" to any possible deal between the U.S. and Brazil for the Pentagon to acquire the Super Tucanos as light-attack planes.
The following spring, U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the top commander in Afghanistan, sent an urgent request to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to acquire four Super Tucanos to provide extra air power to support Special Operations troops in Afghanistan.
The project stalled after lawmakers blocked a $44 million request for funding. The Kansas congressional delegation played a major role in stopping the funds, said Mr. Tiahrt, who left Congress last year after losing the Kansas GOP Senate primary.
The former Kansas representative said he was concerned the deal would give Embraer a leg up in any future Pentagon contest to buy light-attack planes. Mr. Tiahrt, who has worked as a consultant to Hawker Beechcraft and other U.S. aviation companies since leaving office, added that he and other lawmakers "wanted to give American workers a chance to compete for the tax dollars." Former Sen. Brownback, who is now governor of Kansas, declined to comment on the issue.
Despite such lobbying, the U.S. Air Force excluded the Hawker Beechcraft AT-6 planes from running for the Afghan warplane contract in November 2011, effectively handing the deal to the U.S.-Brazilian consortium.
Hawker Beechcraft responded by lodging a protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The GAO dismissed the protest in December. According to the GAO, the Air Force found "significant weaknesses" in Hawker Beechcraft's proposal that made its offer too risky. The Air Force, citing competitive sensitivity and litigation, hasn't given a detailed explanation of that decision. But proponents of the Embraer plane point to a core difference between the two aircraft: The Super Tucano is in service with many militaries, while the AT-6 is a modified version of a training plane that is untested as a combat aircraft. Hawker counters that the Super Tucano is the riskier choice, because the AT-6 is based on a plane that is already used by the U.S. military and has an existing training and parts-supply base.
Last December, the service awarded a contract worth $355 million to Sierra Nevada for 20 Super Tucanos to the Sierra Nevada/Embraer team. Hawker Beechcraft then filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to stop the Air Force from moving forward with the contract. In the suit, Hawker argued it was improperly excluded from the contest. "It was a flawed process," said Bill Boisture, the chairman of Hawker and the head of its Hawker Beechcraft Defense Co. subsidiary.
In late February, the U.S. Air Force moved to cancel the contract for Super Tucanos and restart the contest. In a statement, the service said that top procurement officials were "not satisfied with the documentation" in the original round of bidding. Both Hawker Beechcraft and the Sierra Nevada/Embraer team are vying for the contract the Air Force now expects to award early next year.
Sierra Nevada subsequently sued the Air Force to reinstate the December contract. "We do think that we won on technical merits, we do think we have the only solution that's out there," said Taco Gilbert, vice president of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance business development at Sierra Nevada.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said the cancellation of the original contract for the light-attack planes "was profoundly disappointing" for the service. "We know our Afghan partners need this capability, and we restarted the acquisition as quickly as we could," he said in a statement.
For both Embraer and Hawker, the stakes of winning the contract are high. For Embraer, a win would provide an entry into the U.S. defense market, the largest in the world. For Hawker Beechcraft, which filed for bankruptcy protection in early May in the midst of the restarted competition, a contract would keep production lines open.
In a new twist, the company recently disclosed discussions with a Chinese firm, Superior Aviation Beijing Co., over the sale of most of its businesses, but Hawker said a potential transaction with Superior wouldn't include its military aircraft segment.
The procurement delays represent another setback for the U.S. Air Force, which saw its reputation suffer during a decadelong fight over a multibillion-dollar contest to build a fleet of aerial refueling tankers. That competition, which pitted Boeing Co. BA +2.78% against the U.S.-incorporated unit of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., EAD +0.19% or EADS, became one of the most politicized Pentagon acquisition projects in recent years. Boeing eventually won the tanker order in 2011, but only after the collapse of a scandal-tainted lease deal and a successful protest of a contract award to EADS.
"The whole Washington environment for source selection is polluted, is toxic," says retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Tome Walters, former head of the Pentagon agency that oversees foreign military sales.
Big-ticket weapons deals such as the Afghan air force contract have become "a life or death issue" for many defense firms, leading to protests and litigation that stall delivery, he added. "There is no downside, there's no penalty for filing a protest. In an era of a decreasing number of contracts, it's taken as almost a given that the losers are going to protest."
In Shindand, meanwhile, Afghan pilot candidates—who include three young women—are hoping that the promised warplanes will arrive here one day. Like young pilots in any air force, they are dreaming of speed.
Second Lt. Emal Azizi and 2nd Lt. Walid Noori said they initially expected to be assigned to transport planes such as the C-208B or the C-27A once they graduate this year. Both, however, said they yearn to fly combat missions against the Taliban.
"In Afghanistan most war is like a guerrilla war, so we need fighters," said Lt. Azizi. Lt. Noori added with a grin: "I want to be a fighter pilot."
A version of this article appeared July 25, 2012, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: U.S. Builds Afghan Air Base, But Where Are the Planes?.
Edited by Magnus, 25 July 2012 - 07:01 PM.