I’ve talked about the value of low-tech counterinsurgency aircraft before. The A-10 is always a favorite with ground troops, who value its endurance and massive weapon load, but it’s possible to take a few more steps down the technology ladder and still end up with a highly effective light attack plane that’s easily capable of brassing up some militants while being cheap to run and easy to maintain. While the USAF isn’t interested in anything cheaper than an F-35 these days, the USA does still buy this type of aircraft on a regular basis as military aid to allies, and the latest organization to benefit from this is the Afghan Air Force; the first four A-29 light attack planes landed at Kabul Afghanistan International Airport in mid-January.
The A-29 is the US designation for the Brazilian-built EMB-314 Super Tucano, a development of the 1980-vintage Tucano. The original was a very versatile plane; the UK built them under license as a basic trainer for the Royal Air Force, while a lot of South American countries armed them with machineguns and light bombs as a counterinsurgency plane. It’s fast enough to get around easily, can fly slowly for accurate weapons delivery and has decent endurance. It’s also easy to fly, so it doesn’t take a lot of cockpit hours to stay proficient, and it’s a lot easier to maintain than a fast jet.
The Super Tucano has a more powerful engine and strengthened airframe, and is more optimized for attack than training; it can carry 3,300 pounds of bombs or rockets – including laser-guided bombs – and has a .50-cal machinegun in each wing, plus it has some fairly sophisticated surveillance and fire control gear. For a country like Afghanistan, which has a pretty dismal record of keeping sophisticated jets in the air, it’s an ideal choice – and the Pentagon hopes that they’ll make a real difference to the faltering ANA’s capabilities against the Taliban.
So far, nine Afghan pilots have been trained at Moody AFB in Georgia, along with key maintenance and operations staff (two of them famously deserted in December; one has been picked up but the other is still missing). Now those pilots are back in Afghanistan and their aircraft are beginning to arrive. By the end of 2018, a total of 20 will have been delivered and, while the Afghans want their own fast jet fleet, the chances are the Tucanos will be the most sophisticated attack planes they get until they’ve proven they can defeat the Taliban without ISAF’s help.
The Pentagon has bought A-29s and similar aircraft – including the Cavalier Mustang, built from a refurbished Second World War P-51D – for several allied countries. There’s no chance of the USAF ever asking for any, and that really is a pity. They’re rugged, can operate from a short, rough field, have more than enough firepower to deal with insurgents and, compared to any fast jet, they cost pennies to run. The USAF has used B-1B Lancers – strategic bombers – for close air support in Afghanistan. Flying a B-1B for an hour costs $63,000; the equivalent figure for the Tucano is less than $500. Yes, the B-1B is more capable, but for counterinsurgency most of its capability just isn’t needed.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.