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A-29 Super Tucano: No F-35, But Maybe the Best Light Attack Aircraft?

An Afghan Air Force A-29 Super Tucano soars over Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 14, 2015. The A-29 is the Afghan Air Force's latest attack airframe in their inventory. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr., Released)

Airpower provides a decisive advantage in the fight against violent extremists. Airpower offers a speed of response, an ability to collect information, and precision effects capability unavailable in other types of military capabilities. These effects can be tailored to the specific conditions nations face. Moreover, robust, low-cost air platforms are available, which, when equipped with modern sensors, avionics, and weapons, provide a cost-effective means of addressing the violent extremist threat.

This is particularly important for nations that need airpower in their struggles with domestic threats but cannot afford high-end fighters. When coupled, as necessary, with selective contractor support, small fleets of Embraer EMB 314 Super Tucanos, or A-29s, can have a disproportionate impact in the fight to secure a nation’s security and domestic tranquility.

The A-29 is the world’s leading reconnaissance/light attack aircraft. It is a sophisticated, highly versatile fixed-wing aircraft capable of carrying an array of sensors and weapons, including precision-guided munitions. This makes it extremely valuable in providing close air support for ground units.

The propeller-driven A-29 is also a rugged aircraft, well-suited to operating from austere airfields. With its powerful Pratt & Whitney engine, the A-29 can operate in hot or high-altitude environments common to many of the countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.

Many of the nations that have acquired the A-29 typically also fly advanced jet aircraft. Yet, they have found that jet aircraft can be problematic and costly to operate for some missions, such as border surveillance or tactical support for ground forces engaged with insurgents. In many ways, the A-29 is better suited to the range of day-to-day missions than these nations’ air forces. Its ability to fly low and relatively slow, and deliver weapons with pinpoint accuracy, makes it particularly effective in complex environments where there is also a need to avoid collateral damage.

U.S. Representative Michael Waltz (R-FL) provided a clear and cogent explanation of the value of the A-29 in the fight against violent extremists across the globe: “They have long loiter time and can stay close to the fight. They are interoperable in a very close-knit way with operations on the ground.”

Some important attributes of the A-29 for countries that have limited defense budgets, undeveloped infrastructure, and a relatively immature base of technical skills are its low flying-hour costs, ease of operations, and relatively simple logistics and sustainment. As has been demonstrated by more than a dozen countries, the A-29 can do the job under adverse conditions.

The conflict in Afghanistan brought home to the U.S. military the value of a light attack aircraft, one that could be easily operated and maintained by allies and partners. To provide the Afghan Air Force (AAF) with an indigenous intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR)/light attack capability, the U.S. Air Force contracted with a team led by Embraer and Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) to provide the AAF with the A-29. One of the keys to this effort was the continuing support provided by SNC to the AAF. SNC undertook a multi-year effort to train Afghan pilots and maintainers, first in the U.S. and then in Afghanistan. The company also provided a range of support services, including logistics and sustainment.

With the assistance of the U.S. and its coalition partners, plus support from private contractors, the AAF proved itself capable of employing the A-29 to good effect. By 2018, the A-29s were conducting up to one-third of all AAF airstrikes.

Nations that face the challenges of airspace/border security and counterinsurgency have found the A-29 to be the right solution for their needs. Some 200 A-29s are operated by 10 nations.

Two of the most noteworthy operators of the A-29 are Lebanon and Nigeria, both of which face major internal security challenges. Lebanon acquired six A-29s along with contractor logistics support. This will enable the Lebanese Air Force to provide critical air support to ground forces.

Nigeria, which faces a serious internal security threat from Boko Haram, is in the process of acquiring a fleet of 12 A-29s. The precision-strike capability of the A-29 will reduce the chance of collateral damage. The Nigerian Air Force will be provided with a range of support services to include, in addition to customary areas such as pilot training, maintenance, and logistics support, training in air-ground coordination and human rights.

At a ceremony to mark the induction of the first set of A-29s into the Nigerian Air Force, the commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe/Africa, General Jeffrey Harrigan, made a point of the importance of this new capability to the security and stability of not only Nigeria but Africa as a whole. The A-29 in the service of local partners helps deepen the partnership with the United States and creates common standards and practices with respect to maintenance, training, and employment. General Harrigan also stated:

“Importantly, the platform itself brings a multitude of capabilities and this is not just about weapons, it is about intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, it is about that operability that it provides between the air component and the ground component. And so, it broadens the shared understanding of the force to be able to operate in these different domains.”

Nations acquiring the A-29 can avail themselves of contractor support as the aircraft are inducted or even thereafter. Over the years, SNC has developed a sophisticated approach to contractor support based on the experience, capabilities, and needs of a country’s air force. This will enable that air force to gain the maximum advantage from its purchase, including improved interoperability with U.S. forces and other allies operating the A-29.

Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Gouré has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC.

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Dr. Goure is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program.