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July 19, 2010—The Afghan National Army Air Force has seen plenty of growth in the last year, but pilot training, and language and technical skills remain challenges for the US and NATO officials working to build up the force.

The ANAAF's air size is expected to increase 77.5 percent from 40 aircraft in November 2009 to 71 by July 2011 as it transitions to a more western fleet, said Brig Gen. Michael Boera, commander of the Combined Air Power Transition Force, during a conference call for reporters July 16 from his headquarters in Kabul.

The CAPTF is charged with building the ANAAF to be an independent fighting force capable of conducting and supporting combat operations—including medical evacuations. The Afghan airmen also will be charged with maintaining their own aircraft.

In the next year, Boera an additional 2,300 airmen are projected to join the force, and mission capability will see a whopping 215-percent growth.

However, the existing force of roughly 3,400 airmen is still about 900 shy of the manpower goals originally set in September for officers and noncommissioned officers, because many Afghans who were originally tapped for the ANAAF were pulled into the ground forces before they even showed up for training.

"We are past that now … and we are doing a better job of highlighting those [Afghans] with technical skills. And, we are actually getting them now because the [Afghan National Army] is making its quota," Boera said.

Afghan airmen not only need to grasp complicated, technical concepts, but they also have to master a whole new language. English is the primary language for aviators across the globe, so CAPTF recently launched an English immersion lab—dubbed Thunder Lab—in Kabul for Afghan aviators waiting for a spot in "high-end" language training courses outside of Afghanistan, he said.

Thirty-six airmen are currently participating in the lab—up from 20 just two months ago—and officials say they have already seen a significant increase in test scores. It takes an average of two to three years for Afghan airmen to complete language and pilot training, but Boera said he hopes the lab will cut that time to less than two years.

Thunder lab also will complement the in-country pilot training program that is expected to begin as early as next year.

"Our build for them closes out at 2016. It's always been a long-term build because building an Air Force takes time. It does not keep the pace of the ground forces, where really schooling and training is only needed for a number of weeks," said Boera.