By Kay Johnson
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's armed forces are so short of combat-ready aircraft that, late last year, they began fitting machine guns and rockets to Russian-made Mi-17 transport helicopters, dubbed "flying tractors", to bolster their air power.
With new planes capable of engaging Taliban insurgents delayed by over two years, and NATO air missions backing up troops on the ground now at a minimum, the fledgling Afghan Air Force is scrambling to provide even basic support.
That is a worry for 350,000 police, soldiers and other security personnel fighting militants across the country and dying at a rate of around 100 every week in the heaviest fighting of a 13-year conflict.
Without air support they say they will struggle to defeat the enemy, especially now that tens of thousands of foreign troops supporting them have ended their mission.
NATO is training and advising some 390 Afghan pilots, most with no tactical combat experience, and a limited number of planes and helicopters have been promised to bolster an air force of around 140 aircraft, mostly transport helicopters.
As a stopgap measure, the Afghans began fitting forward-firing 23mm machine guns and 57mm rockets to some of the 86 Mi-17 transport helicopters to supplement five larger Mi-35 attack helicopters that were the only combat aircraft.
"That's not enough to support all the missions," Col. Abdul Shafi Noori, the air force's maintenance group commander, said of the expanded combat fleet, which should number about 30.
"READY THE ROCKETS"
Nevertheless, it is a start, and, at the air force training base just outside the capital Kabul, Afghan pilots have been putting adapted Mi-17s through their paces.
Flying fast and low over barren hills, a helicopter crew zooms its sights on the target: a group of trucks parked on a ridge, representing vehicles full of Taliban insurgents.
"You see the threat?" the American trainer asks the pilot. "Target at 4 o'clock. Ready the rockets."
The crew fires off machine guns and a 57mm rocket that shudders the helicopter as it's released, before obliterating one of the trucks.
This month, a newly modified Mi-17 came to the rescue in real combat, helping an Afghan patrol pinned down by insurgents firing from a ridge in Badakhshan province in the northeast.
The air force plans to have about a dozen weaponized Mi-17s by the spring fighting season that typically begins in April.
"Wherever they are going to be able to get into the fight, it's going to make a big difference," said U.S. Brigadier General Michael Rothstein, commander of the NATO air force training mission.
By June, the air force will also have a dozen more MD-530 helicopters - smaller, swifter machines modified with armor and .50 caliber machine guns, with the first six arriving next month.
Rothstein acknowledged that it was "hard to predict" exactly how effective the air force would be in the coming year, "...but I think they are going to be able to make an impact."
The air force, all but wiped out by civil war and the U.S.-led campaign to topple the Taliban, has only a fraction of NATO's former air power.
At the height of NATO's engagement in Afghanistan in 2011, the coalition flew nearly 133,000 flight missions that year, about 34,000 of those for close air support.
Last year, the Afghan Air Force flew an estimated 7,000 missions, a small fraction in direct support of troops on the ground.
The seven-year-old project to build up the air force has been fraught with setbacks and delays.
An Afghan Air Force pilot gunned down nine Americans at Kabul airport in 2011. The next year, the United States opened an investigation into allegations that some pilots were transporting narcotics on undocumented flights.
Last year, most of the 20 Italian-made G222 transport planes the U.S. bought for $486 million were sold for scrap metal after being grounded because Afghans could not maintain them, said the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
And Afghans are still waiting for 20 A-29 Super Tucano aircraft capable of dropping 500-pound bombs.
Originally scheduled to arrive in mid-2012, delivery has been held up by a legal dispute and is now expected around December, too late for this year's peak fighting season.
Even when Air Force capabilities are expanded, the NATO training mission must teach pilots not only how to fly new aircraft, but also use them tactically.
Largely untested younger pilots will have to learn quickly how to coordinate with ground troops, fly in formation, discern enemy fighters from Afghan forces and avoid killing civilians.
"It takes a long time for them to learn the Western style of fighting and being organized," said Glenn Sands, editor of Air Forces Monthly.
Beyond engaging the enemy, the air force's job is also to save lives. Many of about 5,000 Afghan security personnel killed last year died because they did not reach medical care fast enough.
For Afghan pilot Azizulla Mohammadi, 26, a first lieutenant who ferries supplies and helps evacuate wounded in a C-130 transport plane, the job involves both pride and frustration.
"We can't support all of Afghanistan with this few aircraft," he said. "I feel bad we can't help more."
(Editing by Mike Collett-White)