Department of Defense Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Polumbo from the Pentagon Briefing Room, April 23, 2013

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–April 23, 2013.

COMMANDER BILL SPEAKS: Good morning here in the Briefing Room, and good afternoon in Kabul, Afghanistan. I’d like to welcome Major General H.D. Polumbo, Jr., to the Pentagon Briefing Room. 

Major General Polumbo is commander of the 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force in Afghanistan. He oversees three air expeditionary air wings and two expeditionary groups, consisting of more than 450 airmen directly engaged in combat operations, and he advises and assists with joint expeditionary tasked individuals in the Afghanistan Combined/Joint Operations Area. 

Additionally, the general serves as the Central Command coalition air component commander’s personal representative to the commander of headquarters ISAF, as well as the deputy commander for air to the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, ensuring the optimal integration of air and space power and supports headquarters ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom missions. 

This is Major General Polumbo’s first time here with us in the Pentagon Briefing Room. He will provide brief opening remarks and take your questions. 

And with that, sir, I’ll turn it over to you.

MAJOR GENERAL H.D. POLUMBO JR.: Hey, Cmdr. Speaks, thank you. Good morning, everybody there at Washington and good evening from over here in Kabul, Afghanistan. I’m Jake Polumbo and would let you all know that it’s been my distinct honor, actually, to serve as the senior NATO and U.S. airman here in Afghanistan for the last year. And I’ll take the next 30 minutes or so, or as long as you need to — and welcome the opportunity to share some of my recent experiences with all of you as this campaign here in Afghanistan enters a new phase. And that phase is Afghans taking the lead for their own security and ISAF stepping back into a supporting role. 

Throughout this campaign, coalition airpower has provided a critical asymmetric advantage over those who threaten the security of Afghanistan. And air will continue to do so for the remainder of the ISAF campaign, I’m confident. But in the weeks to come, our focus is going to shift — will shift to supporting the Afghan national security forces, and I will continue to emphasize the Afghan Air Force, so that the core commanders, the ground commanders can hold and expand on the significant security gains they’ve made that were enabled by NATO forces. 

You all can imagine that building an air force from the ground up is no easy task. It takes skilled, confident, bold air crews, proud maintenance specialists who have the technical expertise and language skills needed to operate and maintain their aircraft through a variety of challenging roles and missions of the Afghan air force and in the rugged terrain found here in Afghanistan. 

Austere conditions, challenging weather patterns, remote locations, and combat conditions only increase the degree of difficulty of these tasks, but the Afghans — and particularly the Afghan airmen — are hardy people and have eagerly embraced these challenges. 

The results are showing not only in the training environment, but more importantly on the battlefield. And Afghan air force airmen have conducted winter resupply missions to remote Afghan National Army locations in Nuristan Province in the east, and they’ve provided direct support to Afghan border police in Paktika, Zabul Province in the east, and also down in the south, in Kandahar Province. 

During recent combat operations, Afghan air force helicopters flew life-saving casualty evacuation flights, and they also conducted independent air assaults into contested areas. Admittedly, Afghan air force capacity is still very limited, and it’ll need continued assistance from NATO to increase their capabilities to conduct missions like air surveillance, air support, and mobility operations, and the like. 

But the early signs are, indeed, encouraging, and continued Afghan air force development will bolster the confidence of the rest of the Afghan security forces as they increasingly meet their specific security needs with their own organic capabilities. 

As we assist the Afghans in developing their own organic military capabilities, our proven coalition airpower will provide vital protection — force protection and sustainment for the NATO force, even as we set the theater for the end of the ISAF mission in December 2014 and transitioned to the anticipated NATO resolute support mission during the decade of opportunity. 

In the new NATO mission, we’ll work — continue to work side by side with our Afghan partners to achieve some mutual goals. And those goals include the following: a competent, self-reliant Afghan national security force; an operationally ineffective al-Qaeda deprived of safe havens from which to conduct their operations; an acceptable political transition defined by free and fair elections next year; and, finally, improved regional security relationships between Afghanistan and our neighbors, in particular Pakistan. 

The ISAF commander is confident these goals are achievable, but he also reminds us, his staff, every day that they’re not inevitable. A firm commitment to these objectives is necessary to achieve a positive result for the Afghan people and the air component, the airmen that I work with every day will always be ready to do their part.

It’s been an honor to command the truly remarkable airmen in our U.S. and coalition air forces in Afghanistan and continue our vital air mission in support of the ground commanders. With that, ladies and gentlemen, I’d be glad and happy to take any of your questions.

CMDR. SPEAKS: Spencer?

Q: Thank you, General Polumbo. Spencer Ackerman with Wired. I’m hoping we can quantify some of the aspects of the air operations you’ve talked about. What percentage of air assault missions are being conducted solely by the Afghan national security forces’ air components? We hear a lot about the size of the ANSF on the ground. What still remains to be done in terms of the size of the ANSF air presence, both in terms of personnel and also in terms of the actual air fleet, the aircraft that it still needs?

MAJ. GEN. POLUMBO: Yeah, Spencer, that’s a great question. And to be — to put it into macro terms for you, as we drive the Afghan national security force towards their number, their sustained number of over 350,000 troops, only 6,000 or so right now are in the Afghan air force.

And so you can imagine that the percentage of Afghan air force support forward is small, and that’s okay, because what truly is happening now is we assist the Afghan security forces, the core commanders, the kandak commanders, we assist them with all of our sustainment capabilities that we have, which is very robust. Our NATO forces are very capable.

And so it’s a small percentage that the Afghan air force supplies, in terms of resupply missions, in terms of their other ways to connect the kandaks to the battle space, but over the next two years, it will increase. And, again, this is what’s so important to me as an airman, is there is a pipeline for increased capacity with the air crew members, the pilots, copilots, the load masters, the crew chiefs, as those increase the ability to — and capacity will increase for them to resupply their own ground operations.

Q: About the air assault, what percentage of air operations right now are conducted by the ANSF air force independently?

MAJ. GEN. POLUMBO: Again, it’s a small percentage. And I can get you those numbers and would be happy to do that. It’s a small percentage where their air assault is done — they have more than just the Afghan air force air wings that they have at their locations. They have a special mission wing that also, with Mi-17 helicopters, is able to provide lift for their helicopter assault force, or assault forces, into specific regions in — in the east primarily.

So — but it’s a very small number, and that’s where you need to understand that many of the movements that the Afghans will make will be by — by land, by ground capabilities, and then when they need those specific assaults that are done into the mountainous regions, with their Mi-17s either in the Afghan air force or in the special mission wing, that they plan those, they prioritize those, they make them, you know, work in terms of how the ground forces command prioritizes those events day by day.

Q: Do they have any close air support capabilities?

MAJ. GEN. POLUMBO: They don’t. And, again, another good question in the sense of where are the gaps that they have currently in their arsenal, in their quiver, if you will, for how they can do combined operations. What they do have are they — they have six Mi-35 helicopters that have forward-firing capability, and that capability from my standpoint as the senior airman here is designed to primarily start to set the tactics, the techniques, and the procedures, as we call them, the TTPs, for how they will bring on the Super Tucano now, which is the selected aircraft that the Afghan air force will have that will have multiple capabilities, multiple weapons, weapons capabilities.

And so these Mi-35s that they have that they’re now currently flying — and actually have used in some combat operations in rocket boxes and different things around the Kabul area — they will set those TTPs up that will allow then these Super Tucanos — or as I will designate them, the A-29 — to come into the inventory, starting within the next year, and then probably fully operational into the 2015 timeframe.

So you can see your — as your question alludes to, they have no close air support capability as we would define it, as NATO coalition. What they will have is the air support that their — their ground commanders will need, and in particular, when this A-29 comes onboard, a very, very good and robust capability, as the numbers come onboard.


Q: Yeah, thank you, General, for doing this. Can you give us a sense into what’s a timeline or a strategy for having a strong and independent Afghan air force? And would — you will be providing any kind of support to the Afghan national security forces post-2014? Because they will need air support for their combat operations. 

MAJ. GEN. POLUMBO: Yes, I’d be happy to do that. And as you allude to, it will take time for the Afghan air force to end up as a fully operational — full operational capability, as we call it, FOC, and that will take into the 2016, end of 2016 timeframe at best, and we understand that. That is — that is exactly how we have partnered with the Afghan security forces, in particular the air force, is to be committed to that duration and to bring on these aircraft, these training mechanisms, and the like.

MAJ. GEN. POLUMBO: In the meantime, what the ISAF mission will do — and NATO coalition air will do — will be to provide support when our commanders, when our coalition commanders deem it required in order to assist the Afghan ground commanders with the operations that are — that are undergoing — they’re — that they’re undertaking.

So we have what I would call — and as the senior airmen have coined the phrase — a graduated approach for how our forces would put air support into the equation to assist our Afghan ground commanders with their contact with the insurgents. And that graduated approach is a very detailed way — we have a specific standard operating procedure as to how our regional commanders interact with the core commanders, and the primary way that we emphasize it is to start out with what they have organic, their mortars, their D-30 mortars, their D-60 mortars that are coming online, their indirect fire capability, where we, with a graduated approach mindset, will assist them with information, with intelligence, with targeting options to try and make sure they understand, once they are in contact with the enemy, with the insurgents, where are they exactly? How would they best target them with what they have organic?

And then if they need to, and they need to step it up because the conditions are worsening, then we would move towards something that they would have in their capability like attack helicopters, because the Mi-35 is there. At some point in time, we’ll have door gunners in the Mi-17s. So we would provide, as we graduate this assistance, if, in fact, our coalition commanders deem that appropriate, we would assist with those types of — of helicopter assault force, those things.

And in the most significant or dire of circumstances, if you will, in a very — what we would call in extremis situation, when senior commanders in the ISAF headquarters deem it appropriate, we would put the absolute finest capable platforms we have, what I call our national unique platforms, in play, and then with our coalition commanders controlling those strikes, we would assist the Afghans in that regard.

There’s no doubt that General Dunford and COMISAF, our commander, has told us, we — we will assist them to make sure that there are no significant setbacks in this campaign, but we have to use a graduated approach so that they continue to learn how to fight with what they’ll have in their own arsenal.

Q: General, Otto Kreisher with Seapower Magazine. There’s been a lot of talk about the downsizing, drawback of the ground forces, ISAF ground forces, because the — it’s going to take so long for the ASFN to develop their air component, is — what’s the — how are you planning to draw down an air asset? And, you know, based in Afghanistan, using Navy — naval assets offshore, how — how does that schedule play out? Are you going to need to keep air assets in at a higher level perhaps than — than the ground?

MAJ. GEN. POLUMBO: Yeah, Otto, you’re read-in very good — very well on this. And, again, you’ve mentioned a couple things that — if you’ll permit me, I’ll walk you through this. First and foremost, we know that air is a critical enabler in many of the operations that we do, that coalition ground forces do in partner with our Afghan security forces and sometimes on our own.

But as I’ve said in my opening statement, those coalition operations where we are out in the lead of anything are scaling back and moving into the background so that we can advise and assist, as we finish up the ISAF mission over the next 20 months.

But air will always be important in that regard. It’s our asymmetric advantage. The insurgents, the Taliban have no match to it, and therefore we always have that ability to provide that force protection, to provide that capability to pack that punch that really keeps them on their heels, if not just in retreat.

So how do we then work that into, you know, the next year with respect to the Afghans? Well, again, it’s that graduated approach. But the drawdown to our enduring presence numbers is underway. And we certainly have our guidance in the U.S., and the other NATO nations are similarly working their way down towards the numbers that will be here at the end of ’14, which we’ll call the enduring presence numbers.

How will air draw down according to COMISAF and COMIJC? It will draw down at a slower rate, at a slower — at a less severe of a slope in order to maintain that asymmetric advantage. In my view, we need to make sure that we keep our intelligence, our surveillance, our reconnaissance capabilities fairly high, especially through the end of this fighting cycle, end of this year, and into the election period next year, which is so critical to the success of this campaign, is to enable the Afghans to have a free and fair election.

So we will draw down at slightly slower — lower slope, but we’ll ultimately — as we get to the enduring presence numbers — end up with a smaller air component in Afghanistan to transition to resolute support.

But you — you rightfully remind our viewers and the rest of the reporters that there’s over-the-horizon capability. And the air component — specifically, the key nations that contribute to air and very much so the U.S. — keeps a very capable over-the-horizon component that can be called in by the commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan/the commander of ISAF, General Dunford, as the same person, and I, as the senior airman, along with the CFAC back in — in the CAOC at Al Udeid, we worked that day in and day out via an air tasking order that allows us to flex whenever the situation requires. So the drawdown a little bit slower, and we have over-the-horizon capabilities that can be called back into the equation very quickly. Very good question, though.

CMDR. SPEAKS: Kristina?

Q: Hi, General, this is Kristina Wong from the Washington Times. Thanks so much for speaking with us this morning. My first question is, could you talk a little bit more about the challenges of illiteracy and just some challenges in training pilots, maintenance crews, and — and just across the board what kind of challenge that is?

And then, also — and I’ve heard estimates of, you know, an air — Afghan air force standing up, you know, in 2018. You mentioned 2016 at best. And I was wondering, you know, how many trainers you have now and how many trainers you envision sort of having post-2014 throughout 2018?

MAJ. GEN. POLUMBO: First, to the illiteracy question, I continue to emphasize to my commanders in the coalition and also to the commanders in the Afghan security forces, and particularly my good friend, Major General Wahab, the commander of the air force, Afghan air force, that the literacy piece is so important, and the ability to read and write and communicate in English is critical to the development — further development of the Afghan air force.

And because of that, two things have happened. One is that the chief of general staff has agreed to higher accession standards for the Afghan air force, and they are slowing working those procedures into their recruitment and pipeline process, so that the air force gets the recruits that can begin this higher-tech training that’s required to fix the aircraft, to fly the aircraft, to crew chief the aircraft, et cetera, and then to be able to operate (inaudible) dynamic combined arms setting.

It isn’t there yet. They will sometimes in our monthly recruiting results will end up with a class that comes in and their literacy rates are too low and their English skills are not where they need to be, and we will turn those recruits away, and they will go back into kind of a general fund, if you will, and go into other things.

So we’ll continue to highlight that, because it can’t happen. You know, a Super Tucano and different types of airplanes, the Cessna 208, the Mi-17V5, which is a very capable airplane for flying in Afghanistan, a helicopter, it requires English and full literacy capabilities. So I will stay on that, and we will stay on it.

In terms of the number of trainers, it’s actually a very small number in the 300 or so — and you — I can get you more exact numbers, but it’s a very small portion of the total advise and assist footprint that is in the coalition force management level.

And I anticipate it won’t get any bigger than that in 2014 into ’15, because we have — as I’ve said, we have a training pipeline that has the strategic goals in mind to get the capability and capacity up between 2015, 2016, and then finishing in ’17. So, again, the numbers will be small in comparison to the advisers and the people who will — the troops that will provide assistance to the army and to the police.

CMDR. SPEAKS: Richard?

Q: Sir, Richard Sisk of Another numbers question. Sir, can you tell us how many sorties the ISAF forces have flown this year in which the aircraft have fired or dropped munitions? And how does that stack up against previous years?

MAJ. GEN. POLUMBO: Yeah, Richard, good question. And I can get those numbers to you. You know, my last monthly report to the commander had over 11,000 sorties flown by all of the coalition, including the sorties that come in from over-the-horizon, so it’s a very, very high number of sorties that are flown, but you can imagine that a lot of that is the re-supply, intra-theater lift. A lot of that is the different helicopter ops and everything else.

That’s why I say, if you can be more specific, I can get you very precise answers, and I’d be happy to do that for you, because we’re very proud of the fact that we fly an incredible amount of rotary wing and fixed-wing sorties every day and night, 365 days. We get absolute incredible support from over-the-horizon, whether it’s from the carrier strike group or from the bases in the Arabian Gulf.

In — in the particular piece of kinetic deliveries, it’s a very small percentage of that, a significantly small percentage, because we don’t go kinetic very often, because we are so precise in our kinetic deliveries. When we do kinetic, the precision with which we do that is so high that we do it, it doesn’t take a second sortie, it doesn’t take another mission. It gets done — the ground commander’s intent is met on the first try, and then we go back into an overwatch mode, and also primarily — which is what we do so often — is we go into an intelligence-gathering mode with surveillance of FOBs and COBs.

So I’d be glad to get you those numbers. And rather than give you a wag, I’d give you the exact numbers via an RFI, if you will.

Q: Thank you, General. Amy McCullough with Air Force Magazine. I was wondering if you could elaborate on the post-2014 footprint a little bit. I know you’ve talked about that quite a bit. But other than trainers, who — who will we — who will the air force still need in Afghanistan? And will there be a need to plus-up the footprint at the surrounding bases?

MAJ. GEN. POLUMBO: Amy, somehow we got a bad connection at that point. I think I — I heard your name, but then if you could repeat the question, I’m sorry. I just didn’t hear it.

Q: Sure, no problem. In addition to trainers, what other types of airmen do you see in Afghanistan in 2014? What type of career fields will be necessary? And do you see any need to kind of plus-up the footprint in surrounding gulf bases?

MAJ. GEN. POLUMBO: The types of airmen that we’ll have besides the advise and assist airmen will be primarily airlift, people that assist in regards to any of the drawdown that might not yet be done and assisting with the aerial ports of demarcation for our retrograde ops, and then some manned ISR will be a small footprint, but, again, enough that it’ll be a recognizable percentage of the footprint into ’15.

And then what, you know, I’m so proud of as a U.S. air force, U.S. airman, is the fact that much of our remotely piloted aircraft that provide this long endurance, persistent watch of the target areas or of the friendly forces, is flown by reach back, it’s flown by a distributed environment for our — RPA pilots actually are back in Creech Air Force Base in Nevada or in Holloman in New Mexico, in other places.

So you can see the footprint goes way down, because of that ISR capability that will be so important into ’15, but we’ll do it with very few people forward. We’ll launch and recover, as I would call it, pitch and catch the RPAs, and then most of the mission is flown reach back.

As far as your question on the rest of the gulf region, you know, it really is a CENTCOM discussion to have that. From my point of view, I wouldn’t see any plus-ups significantly in anything we have in the over-the-horizon capability because we have such a sustained way of providing that capability with small footprint, what I call expeditionary airmen, that generally are not permanently assigned to these locations that come in, in our U.S. Air Force expeditionary rotation.

So I wouldn’t expect it to plus-up in that regard, but, you know, CENTCOM probably has the better vantage point to answer that. But that’s a good question, Amy, on both aspects.


Q: General, it’s Luis Martinez with ABC News. Just following up on Amy’s question, which is exactly what I was going to ask, so you’re saying that the enduring air component will not have combat air support capability beyond the over-the-horizon aircraft that may be needed? Is that correct?

And what — what — how long of a timeframe are we talking before the A-29, Super Tucano is operable by the Afghan air force?

MAJ. GEN. POLUMBO: Yeah, the A-29 will start coming into the inventory next year, not — it will not be a factor — yeah, okay. I’m sorry. There was a little bit of feedback. But, again, the Super Tucano A-29 is not anything in the ’13 fighting cycle. It’s next year where it starts to come onboard, and obviously most of that will have to be the initial training the cadre of Afghan air force pilots who will not only be prepared to fly it themselves, but also bring on and become the instructors in the airplane. So it’ll be mid-’14 and into ’15 where it starts to really reach some operational capability. So what does that mean for — how does the air support be generated by anything still remaining in the coalition capabilities? We’ll still have some fixed-wing capability to do air support, air- delivered munitions. It likely will include other nations besides the United States Air Force and the United States Navy and the United States Army. And I encourage that, for our NATO partners who have very robust capabilities over here right now in both rotary-wing and fixed-wing.

And likely, we would expect to see some of those nations stay into the resolute support mission in 2015 and beyond, all to be determined in the months to come as we go through the concept of operations that NATO will put in play and in negotiations with the nations, and ultimately into a final plan that will come to fruition in 2015.

I think the other piece that maybe you’re asking about that I could help you with is, what other capabilities will have kinetic capabilities? And, again, I come back to the remotely piloted aircraft that not only the U.S. fly, but other nations fly — the U.K. comes to mind — that have hybrid ISR. They can collect intelligence, but they also are armed. And they’re armed to be able to provide force protection to our coalition forces, and then our coalition ground force commanders, when they deem it appropriate, they can control that air delivered munition capability from the RPAs to be put in support of the Afghans.

So you’ll have that hybrid ISR, as I call it, that armed ISR remotely piloted aircraft capability all the way through ’14. And then once resolute support mission operations is fully understood and agreed upon by our coalition partners and our — and our leadership, you likely will see it into 2015 to provide force protection.

Q: If I could follow up really quickly, are you — are you talking about an integrated international aviation task force, I guess, where you would bring small numbers, each country would present small numbers of aircraft, fixed-wing aircraft that would all operate under the same umbrella?

MAJ. GEN. POLUMBO: I am. And it’s what we have now. As you know, the coalition that we have of 50 willing nations — most of them are NATO — which makes it very straightforward for me as the senior NATO airman to operate. We know how we are integrated. We know how to talk to each other. We know how to pass taskings back and forth. We know how to do air space control measures, et cetera.

So we have that now, and I’m confident that that NATO coalition of the troop contributing nations that have air power, that it will likely be the same type of a set-up, albeit smaller, in the resolute support mission, so into 2015.

The interesting part of it is, we also have other non-NATO nations that have very significant air capabilities — United Arab Emirates, UAE comes to mind — and they — after we work this into our existing NATO command-and-control structure, they are full participants and very, very capable of doing this day in and — day in and day out. And into resolute support, you know, I would — I would encourage and hope that the nations such as the UAE would also stay with us.

CMDR. SPEAKS: Okay, with that, sir, I will turn it over to you for any closing comments.

MAJ. GEN. POLUMBO: Well, I think you guys have been too easy on me, but it’s been a pleasure to talk to you. There’s an obvious understanding of the complexity of the environment by the questions that you all ask. They were really good questions. I appreciate it. Anything that I promised you a return on, we can through the ISAF structure that we have here, we can get that data to you.

I will close by saying it’s an honor and a privilege as the senior U.S. and NATO airman to have served for the year and worked with so many great airmen and great soldiers and Marines and sailors and the civilians that are over here. And I have been flying in the Afghan airspace this year, as the commander, but also over the last three years, it’s a very difficult place to fly. It’s a very challenging environment to fly airplanes day and night, so I have nothing but the utmost admiration for our airmen and the maintenance personnel and the civilians that assist us in that regard, because it’s so important.

The Afghan people deserve this try. General Dunford has defined how we should look at how to declare a win in this regard. And over the next 20 months, we have a lot of work to do to really, really assist the Afghans in a free and stable and vibrant and economically viable country.

So, again, thank you all for the opportunity to talk to you today, and we’re out here from Kabul.

CMDR. SPEAKS: Thank you, sir.