Rarely does a delivery of defence materiel have quite this symbolic resonance. The Afghan Air Force (aaf) has received the first of 159 Sikorsky uh-60a Black Hawk helicopters that the US plans to ship to Afghanistan over the next five years. The Black Hawks will eventually replace the AAF’s lumbering Russian-built Mil Mi-17s, which means that one of the pre-eminent symbols of Russian intervention in Afghanistan is being phased out – and in favour of an American equivalent, no less.
Afghanistan’s airforce was once a reasonably serious outfit. From the 1960s to the beginning of the country’s civil war in the early 1990s, it boasted a hefty fleet of Soviet-supplied combat jets. Even the Taliban managed to keep a few Mig-21s and Sukhoi Su-22s airborne.
The new-look Afghan Air Force is – so far, at least – a more modest operation. The Black Hawks aside, its biggest headline purchase (underwritten to the tune of $427m (€360m) by the US) has been a 20-strong batch of a-29 Super Tucanos: propeller-powered light attack aircraft that are built by Brazilian manufacturer Embraer.
So what do these purchases tell us about where the airforce is heading? “The aaf is being built around a single purpose,” says Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “It’s counter-insurgency, hence the concentration on helicopters and ground-attack aircraft. In the medium to long term they might look at developing a higher capacity. But in the near term the operational requirement is defeating the Taliban – and fast jets aren’t what you need to do that.”
While other countries struggle with mandatory military service, in Finland it is so popular that would-be recruits have to be turned away. Even rising popstar Robin (not to be confused with Sweden’s Robyn) will be joining the Finnish Defence Force (fdf) next year and setting sail with the navy.
A big part of the fdf’s appeal is its willingness to listen to the ranks – from the highest Kenraali to the lowliest Sotamies – with regular internal polls, which cover everything from sleeping arrangements to managing stress and maintaining unit cohesion. And it pays off: among graduating conscripts, 80 per cent support keeping conscription.
Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte is seeing through his plan of moving away from US influence and cosying up to China and Russia instead – and his new friends are bearing gifts. In early October the Philippine armed forces accepted €2.8m in donated weapons from Beijing; weeks later, five Russian navy ships docked in Manila, carrying millions more in donated military equipment.
The US army is updating its style but the sartorial shift is far from being a radical departure. It’s bringing back the “pinks and greens” used in the Second World War era for everyday wear and moving away from the hi-tech and camouflaged look that it sports at the moment.
The sharp green-wool and brass-buttoned jacket, complemented by khaki trousers, made a test appearance at a US army conference in October. The military fashion show was well received, with a poll suggesting that 77 per cent of active-duty soldiers fancied the uniform. Further confirmation came from the 59 per cent who said that they prefer it over the army service uniform that is currently the wardrobe hero. All in all, bringing the old togs back into service seems to have resulted in a decisive victory.