NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Between a shortage of pilots, daily strikes against the Islamic State group and a budget crunch that forces tough choices between modernization programs, the US Air Force has its hands full. For years, the Pentagon has sought to offload some requirements onto partner air forces, with mixed results.

But Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, thinks the mission to train allied air forces needs extra emphasis from the service, potentially including building in incentives for the airmen who do that mission.

Calling the training of foreign allies a "core mission" of the Air Force, Dunford called on the audience to make sure that area is not considered a secondary mission that can be given perfunctory focus.

"Our strategy today is based on building effective, indigenous forces," Dunford told an audience at the Air Force Association conference on Wednesday. "We cannot be everyplace. We cannot do everything. So the theory of the case is by growing effective, indigenous forces in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, with relatively modest investment, we can sustain the environment in which violent extremism, in this case, won't flourish."

The issue came to his mind, Dunford said, during a recent visit to Afghanistan, where his nephew is serving with the US Air Force as a trainer.

"I grabbed three or four of the other officers in his organization on a recent visit to Kabul, and I said: ‘Hey, is this a good deal for you?’ They looked down, didn’t want to answer me directly, and I said: ‘Is this good for you? Is this something that is competitive and people really want to do, and this is looked favorably on in your career?' And their perspective is no," Dunford relayed to the audience.

"So all I would ask you is to think about what’s important and how you incentivize that," he continued. "If our young captains think maybe doing something like building the Afghan Air Force is not something that makes them competitive and is not valued by the institution, then we won’t get the right people to go. And if we don’t get the right people to go, we won’t grow the right air force."

Last month the Afghan Air Force received their final batch of MD-530 helicopters, which brings the total to 27. In addition, the Afghans have taken possession of eight A-29 Super Tucano light-attack planes, with another 12 scheduled for delivery by the end of 2018.

Pilots are trained both in the US — Afghan airmen are currently at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, training on the A-29s — as well as abroad.

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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