The U.S. military has stepped up air strikes against enemy forces in Afghanistan as part of the Trump administration’s new strategy for the war-torn country, Defense Secretary James Mattis said Oct. 3.

The increased air activity, which is at its highest level in five years, is “embedded in the revised strategy,” Mattis testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee during a hearing devoted to Afghanistan. The Trump administration unveiled the strategy in August in an effort to shore up Afghan forces and reverse the Taliban’s recent gains.

Two Afghan Air Force A-29 Super Tucanos fly over Kabul in 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Two Afghan Air Force A-29 Super Tucanos fly over Kabul in 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The intensified air campaign has been accompanied by an easing of the rules of engagement. For example, air power can now be used against enemy forces even if they are not near Afghan or U.S. troops.

The secretary’s comments came in response to Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), who lamented that sorties against enemy targets in Afghanistan fell 84 percent from 2010 to 2015 as the Obama administration made the rules of engagement more restrictive. By contrast, an “aggressive” air campaign against the Islamic State helped deal a strong blow to that terrorist group in Iraq, she said.

In other comments, Mattis explained that he is trying to remedy a situation in which troop caps under the Obama administration forced U.S. military units to hire contractors, at significant expense, to maintain helicopters overseas instead of bringing their own maintenance personnel along. The Trump administration has given Mattis more flexibility on troop levels, which he expects will help him address the matter.

“We know we can solve a lot of it,” he said. “But I have to look at the tentacles of a policy decision that’s been in place a long time.”

While Afghanistan remains dependent on outside air power, its own air force is becoming more capable, such as by replacing Russian-made Mi-17 transport helicopters with U.S.-made UH-60 Black Hawks, including an attack variant, and fielding A-29 light-attack aircraft and MD-530F light-attack helicopters, said Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who testified alongside Mattis.

“Long term – that’s about six or seven years from now – we’ll have completely transformed the Afghan air force,” Dunford told the senators.

Also during the hearing, Mattis announced that Congress has approved the Pentagon’s reprogramming request to transfer more than $400 million in fiscal year 2017 funds to missile defense. The reprogramming, which the Department of Defense sent to Capitol Hill in September, includes various anti-missile improvements, including sensor upgrades and more long-range, ground-based interceptors (Defense Daily, Sept. 28).

Mattis revealed that the transfer totals $440 million, up from the original figure of $416 million. He did not indicate why the dollar amount rose.

The Republican-led House and Senate okayed the request despite objections from Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, who said the reprogramming will hurt military readiness by taking funds from operation and maintenance accounts (Defense Daily, Sept. 29).