The U.S. Air Force is planning to remain in Afghanistan until 2017 in an advisory role, but Congress's confidence in—and potential funding for—the young air force there is wavering.

The drastic funding cuts proposed by Senate appropriators—eliminating a second batch of 20 Super Tucanos and slicing money for more Mil Mi-17 helicopters—are a reaction to a lack of progress in maturing Afghanistan's air force. A June 28 report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction looking at one special mission wing designed for the counter-narcotics mission outlined disarray significant enough to prompt the proposed cuts.

A defense industry official says the problems in this wing are mirrored throughout the air force. Pilot retention, for example, is a challenge. “If you're an English speaker who can fly, you're a pretty hot commodity,” the official says. Other congressional committees did not suggest such an explicit reduction in funding, but those bills were drafted before the release of the June report.

The senior U.S. airman in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, says the young service there is making strides. “The press was fairly negative [that] it wasn't ready. It wasn't that advanced. It wasn't that professional,” when he arrived to be deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Wilsbach tells Aviation Week. “That impression . . . was wrong . . . . They are small but capable.”

Afghanistan's entire air force was grounded last year due to poor safety and training, but they have since refocused on training and conducting more operations.

However, the Pentagon hopes to have a much stronger service in place when it decamps in 2017. The Afghan air force is struggling to operate old and unreliable Mi-35s in an attack helicopter role. It was prohibited temporarily from providing fires from these helicopters because of safety concerns; but Wilsbach says they began executing attack missions again at the end of July.

The Pentagon's decision to abruptly cancel Alenia's contract to deliver refurbished C-27A airlifters to Afghanistan along with training, is further straining the small Afghan Mi-17 helicopter fleet.

The first of 20 Light Air Support (LAS) aircraft, A-29 Super Tucanos being built by Sierra Nevada Corp. and Embraer, is slated to arrive in the late fall of 2014; all 20 should be in place within 10 more months. But a request for the second 20 aircraft, costing $416.8 million, has hit this obstacle in the U.S. Senate. The request was included a list of items specifically needed to continue fighting in Afghanistan.

The A-29s are designed for close air support, light attack and basic intelligence-collection missions that will be especially crucial around the porous Pakistan border as coalition forces pull out of the region in the coming years, Wilsbach notes. With the first 20 aircraft alone, “We don't think it is out of the question to generate 300 A-29 sorties in a month,” he says, which would satisfy all of their anticipated close air support needs.

The Pentagon's own inspector general report questions the wisdom of buying 30 more Mi-17s and 18 Pilatus PC-12s for the counter-narcotics mission.

“We believe the purchase and delivery of the aircraft should be contingent on the [wing's] achievement of personnel and maintenance and logistics support milestones and indications that the [wing] has the capacity to execute its mission and operate and maintain its fleet,” the June report states. “Without an effective support structure, U.S.-funded [wing] aircraft could be left sitting on runways in Afghanistan, rather than supporting critical missions, resulting in waste of U.S. funds.”

Truncating the A-29 buy would be a boon for Beechcraft, which has vociferously but unsuccessfully protested the Super Tucano source selection by the U.S. Air Force. Beechcraft CEO Bill Boisture wants to limit further Pentagon purchases of the A-29, hoping to sell the AT-6 to allies, arguably a tough position to take after the A-29 win.

“We are looking to limit that to the 20 because we believe a policy error was made,” Boisture told an Aviation Week editorial roundtable last month. “We know they didn't select the best aircraft, but we are over that.”

Boisture argues that providing Afghanistan with Russian helicopters and Brazilian A-29s not in the U.S. inventory “defies the logic and intent” of initiatives to supply partners with suitable equipment, and risks creating “orphan” fleets that cannot be employed or sustained by these partners, says Nicole Alexander, Boisture's spokeswoman. Further, he asserts that “long-term employment and sustainment costs cannot be accurately assessed in advance of fielding, since no U.S. infrastructure exists to support the orphan fleets.”

Beechcraft officials did not comment on the proposal to slice Super Tucano funding.

Meanwhile, four Lockheed Martin C-130Hs are to be delivered to the Afghan air force by next April. They will make up for the canceled C-27As.