Can Embraer's Modest Super Tucano Hack It in Afghanistan?

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Last week, when I was being shown around Embraer's new U.S.-assembled A-29 Super Tucano with a group of journalists, the first thing that caught my eye was a big covered something sticking out of each wing. In an age of remote control drones and smart bombs, that couldn't possibly be a machine gun, could it? It sure enough was said our Embraer guide. The A29, in a throwback to the days of mano a mano air combat, has a single .50 caliber gun in each wing, although not the same Browning model used in just about every U.S.-made aircraft that carried such weapons, but an FN Herstal.

File that, I guess, under the more things change, the more they stay the same. It got me wondering how far you have to go back to find the last time a single-engine propeller aircraft had wing-mounted guns. I can't think of anything later than say the T-28, which appeared in the 1950s, but actually had guns in pods on hardpoints. Before that, it would have been the Douglas A-1 Skyraider, but it had a pair of 20mm cannons in each wing. It emerged just at the end of World War II and saw duty in Korea and Vietnam. None of those airplanes were intended for air-to-air gunnery, although a pair of Navy AD's claimed one of the first Mig kills during the Vietnam war after a hapless Mig-17 pilot thought a head-on pass against eight 20mm cannons was a good idea. And like the T-28 and A-1, the Tucano's guns are intended for ground support, keeping alive what first appeared 100 years ago: the ground strafing attack.

As we were told at the Embraer unveiling of the A-29 last week, these U.S.-assembled variants, built by Sierra Nevada Corp., are destined for the budding Afghan Air Force, where they will be used as both training and light air support aircraft. What I found interesting is that despite 40 years of aeronautical progress, the A-29 has similar range and payload as the T-28, although at 280 knots, it's quite a bit faster than the old round-engine Trojan. It's also much more flexible than the T-28, carrying a range of bombs, rockets and guns in five hardpoints. But depending on how it's configured, the A-29 isn't a super load hauler, even if all the hardpoints are given over to ordnance. It can haul about 3300 pounds, if no external fuel is needed.

In theory, that shouldn't matter because state-of-the-art airplanes like the A-29 have—potentially--a great field leveler a T-28 pilot couldn't have dreamed of: precision guided munitions. Even with fewer bombs or smaller bombs, the modern aircraft can do far more damage because it puts the ordnance on the target so precisely. What used to require five or 10 bombs may now require just one so theoretically, the relatively light Tucano should be able to punch far above its weight.

But here's where things get a little murky. Sierra Nevada said it's talking to Boeing about fitting the Tucano with some kind of PGM, but it didn't specify what. Presumably it could be the DOD's JDAM system, or something similar. But you can imagine that there must be some sensitivity to turning this technology over to a foreign government, especially one in the Middle East. When I asked the Air Force about this, I was told that no decision has been made yet, including even an agreement in principle that the Afghan airplanes can have this technology. I'm sure it can't be lost on Pentagon planners that the U.S. is now, improbably, using $30,000 JDAMs to destroy armored Humvees seized by ISIS fighters from the Iraqi Army, at $250,000 a pop. CNN says the tally is 41 vehicles so far. (They also used a $339 million-each F-22 to bomb a building. One F-22 represents about 80 percent of the entire 20-airplane Tucano contract.)

Sierra Nevada's Taco Gilbert said even if the Tucano doesn't get PGM capability, it would still prove effective because countries using it report excellent dumb bomb accuracy. (Gilbert, by the way, is a retired one-star with Air Force expertise in bombing technology.) The airplane can be equipped with a constantly computed impact point bomb aiming system that's supposed to be nearly as accurate as PGMs. Well, maybe.

But PGMs have revolutionized air support by simultaneously improving target accuracy while keeping aircraft and pilots beyond the envelope of defensive ground fire. It's the rare example of a weapons technology almost too good to be true because it delivers better results with lower risk to pilots. That's how the Pentagon has and continues to sell this technology. The A-29 goes against the grain of traditional defense spending. The services and their congressional overseers have become so addicted to large, high-dollar weapons system that a modest idea like the A-29 hardly gets a second look. Yet with the right technology, it could be (and has been) a lethal bomber in places where people on the ground don't have radar-guided AAA or significant missile capability. Oddly, that seems to be most of the places where U.S. forces or their allies seem to be fighting these days. If the A-29 doesn't get all the tools available to make it as potent as it really could be, perhaps because of politics or internecine service squabbling, it could end up just another forgotten weapons buy that could have been.

Give it two or three years and see if the U.S. Air Force can train up the Afghans to use the A-29 or, at least, keep the next wave of invading hordes from getting their mitts on it.

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Comments (7)

Ummmm ... are we trying to re-invent the A-10 Warthog?

Posted by: Phil Derosier | September 28, 2014 7:45 PM    Report this comment

No we're just trying to make another entity rich and famous that is not part of our own country. Canada, maybe yes but a South America country in direct competition with our own businesses involved in making war.

Posted by: Ken Stuart | September 29, 2014 6:33 AM    Report this comment

In the late 60's, Dave Lindsey, owner of Cavalier Mustang, built two counter insurgency turbine airplanes out of P-51's. He didn't have the manufacturing capability necessary to build them en masse, so he sold the rights to Piper aircraft circa 1970. From this early idea, Piper developed the PA-48 "Enforcer" at their Lakeland facility. It looked like a P-51 with a long nose but was actually mostly a new airframe. After years of trying to get the USAF interested, they finally got a $12M appropriation to build two airplanes for testing.

Having had these airplanes 'shoved down their throats' by a Florida Congressman the USAF gave the test program mere lip service. At Edwards AFB, a formal combined test force was not formed ... rather, the project was given to the USAF test pilot school as an academic test project. The students couldn't get enough of the airplanes. They loved them! After the test was over and the test reports written, nothing more happened. WIth a propeller on the front and a tailwheel on the back, I guess the USAF wasn't going backward in 'time.'

Now snap forward to today. We're having a foreign government build an airframe that we're perfectly capable of building ourselves. And, Beech Aircraft lost out not once but twice! Imagine if the USAF would have ordered several hundred of the PA-48's back in the 80's. Why are we using F-22's to knock down buildings when a PA-48 equipped with modern day weaponry could do the same job? With the advent of the tri-mode seeker head plus INS and GPS small diameter GBU-53 bomb, these things would be lethal ... not only in the hands of Afghani's, but our own USAF, as well.

The PA-48's still exist. One has been restored and is on display at the Museum of the USAF at Wright-Patterson AFB, OH. The other awaits restoration at the Edwards AFB Museum in California. These airplanes performace exceeded that of the Super Tucano, too. (sigh)

Posted by: Larry Stencel | September 29, 2014 11:11 AM    Report this comment

I think we would have been better off buying US built Air Tactor 802U aircraft for this role. Much better payload at 8,100 lbs and far better suited for rough terrain operations. While it gives up 100 knots in top speed, on-station patrol times are similar. Having twice the ordinance load would provide far better mission support to the forces on the ground vs zipping around at faster speeds. Perhaps the real problem is it is not as pretty as the A-29, or maybe it's that tail wheel thing.

Posted by: John Salak | September 29, 2014 11:26 AM    Report this comment

Having served in a Flight Test support job at Edwards AFB for 15 1/2 of my almost 21 years of USAF service (plus 12 more as a retiree), I can tell ya -- first hand -- that many of the source selections on weapon systems WERE politically motivated OR were strongly skewed by very shrewd maneuvering by the various aeronautical entities seeking military contracts. And, sometimes it seems as if the loser is sometimes better off. Witness the YF-16 / YF-17 "lightweight fighter" competition of the early 70's. The General Dynamics F-16 wins, the Government takes the blueprints (that it says IT paid for) and gives to McDonnel Aircraft to turn the Northrop F-17 design into the F-18 Hornet and (now) Super Hornet. And, Northrop built a major portion of the fuselage for THAT airplane in Hawthorne.

Working subsequently for a major aeronautical company, I often wished that one of them would tell the Government to take their competition and shove it. Of course, that doesn't (and likely can't) happen in a publicly traded Company but ... still ... I wish someone would do it.

Every time I pick up something (and these days, mostly everything) that says Hecho en China, my blood boils. As a kid growing up in Chicago, there were hundreds of small and medium sized companys around town that a young kid could start out sweeping floors for and wind up moving up the chain of command. Now, when I go back, most are gone ... to Mexico or beyond.

Sierra Nevada Corp is headquartered in Nevada. Harry Reid is from Nevada. Taco Gilbert is a retired General officer. YOU connect the dots.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | September 29, 2014 12:12 PM    Report this comment

The PRAW (Police Reserve Air Wing) of the BSAP (British South African Police, although it was not British or South African, it was Rhodesian) used at least once Cessna 172 with a 7.62 mm heavy duty machine gun fired through the doorway. It had a welded frame attached with pins to "hard-points" on the floor.
Very effective it was too, even if it did occasionally land with holes from AK47s through the tin and pilots who walked with a pronounced lean for days afterwards.
At the time the air force famously had pilots who could put 20mm cannon shells from a Hawker Hunter into a dustbin in strafing runs (plural.)
But for a country subject to oil sanctions firing up the jets was not something done without triple thinking.
So now when one of the world's biggest air forces (Saudi Arabia's) is part of a coalition but unable to fly (I have heard they are worried that the pilots might not come back), and the USA is flying $339 million aircraft which burn enough oil an hour to heat a house for a whole winter, all the way to Arabia to knock down tin sheds, it makes complete sense for a purpose built, propeller ground attack aircraft to be developed.
Finding and training the pilots to use them is another matter.

Posted by: John Patson | September 30, 2014 3:00 AM    Report this comment

As a Brazilian,in other eords a Latin American, by the way a "race" invented by americans,ignoring our differences, including language and behaviors) I noticed that America has not noticed that a new way to make war entered this world and since the fifties, e.g through Viet Minh in French Indochine (later,Vietnam) and Cuban Revolution:guerilla. AN that against the majority of arms failed,or Vietnam,Iraq, and last but not least Afghan talibans would have been defeated a long,long time ago.
By using the arms you are using against guerilla is like retaliate a fly with an elephant gun.
"Modesty" may be a virtue not a handicap.Below let me transcribe a few notes from Wikipeia.
"On 18 January 2007, a squadron of Colombian Air Force Super Tucanos launched the first-ever combat mission of its type, attacking FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) positions in the jungle with Mark 82 bombs. This attack made use of the Super Tucano's CCIP (Continuously Computed Impact Point) capability; the aircraft's performance in action was a reported success"..."In 2008, the Colombian Air Force used a Super Tucano armed with Griffin laser guided bombs inside Ecuadorian airspace during "Operation Phoenix", to destroy a guerrilla cell and kill the second-in-command chief of FARC, Raul Reyes. This event led to an Andean diplomatic break between the two countries"...."On 21 September 2010, Operation Sodoma in the Meta department began, 120 miles south of the capital Bogota. FARC commander Mono Jojoy was killed in a massive military operation in the early hours of 22 September, a squadron of 25 EMB-314 launched seven tonnes of explosives on the camp, while some 600 special forces troops descended by rope from helicopters, opposed by 700 guerrillas. 20 guerrillas died in the attack".."On 2 October 2010, Super Tucanos using infrared cameras spotted and bombarded the FARC 57th front in the Choco Department just a kilometer away from the Panama border. The bombardment killed five rebels, including, several commanders of the group"...."On 15 October 2011, Operation Odiseo started with a total of 969 different military bodies of the Colombian armed forces. A total of 18 aircraft participated in "Operation Odiseo". On 4 November 2011, five Super Tucanos were used to launch a heavy bombing of 100 lb(45 kg) and 250 lb(135 kg), plus high-precision smart bombs. This operation ended with the death of the leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC), Alfonso Cano. It was biggest blow in the history of the guerrilla organization"..."In February 2011, Dominican Republic Air Force Chief of Operations, Col. Hilton Cabral stated: "since the introduction of the Super Tucano aircraft and ground-based radars, illicit air tracks into the Dominican Republic had dropped by over 80 percent." In August 2011, the Dominican Air Force said that since taking delivery of the Super Tucanos in 2009, it has driven away drug flights to the point that they no longer enter the country's airspace.[57] In May 2012, the Dominican president Leonel Fernandez gave cooperative order for the army forces to support a fleet of Super Tucanos for the anti-drugs fight on Haiti."...."
So now it's up to the American and Afghan pilots to do a good job. In Latin America, Colombia and Dominican Republic have done it.

Posted by: Alberto Francisco Carmo | November 29, 2014 5:57 AM    Report this comment

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