As humankind proceeds through the third decade of the 21st century, jet-powered aircraft are seemingly all the rage when it comes to combat aircraft nowadays: 5th Generation fighters like the F-22, F-35, J-20, and Su-57; 4.5 Generation fighters like India’s Tejas; and even suped-up variants of 4th generation jets like the F-16V “Viper” and F-15EX. Even subsonic air-to-ground attack platforms such as the A-10 Warthog and Su-25 “Frogfoot” are still jet-powered.
So then, that begs the question: are single-engine propeller-driven planes still viable in the air combat role today? The short answer is a resounding “Hell, yes!” One prime example is the militarized version of the Cessna Caravan, which the Iraqi Air Force used to hold the line against ISIS before and even after they received their much-ballyhooed F-16s. Another excellent example is the one we’re going to discuss in this article: Brazil’s A-29 Super Tucano.
A-29: Brazil’s Badass Bird
The A-29 Super Tucano (Portuguese for “Toucan;” cue the Toucan Sam Froot Loops cereal mascot jokes) AKA the EMB 314 or ALX, is designed and primarily manufactured by the Defense and Security division of Brazil’s Embraer S.A, best known to the American public for its corporate jets and smaller-scale commercial airliners. In addition, some of the warbirds are being produced under license by U.S.-based Sierra Nevada Corporation for the manufacture of A-29s to export customers. The A-29 Super Tucano made her maiden flight on 2 June 1999 and officially went operational in 2003 — perfect timing vis-a-vis the Global War on Terror (GWOT).
From a business perspective, those export customers definitely came in handy for Embraer and Sierra Nevada Corp. alike, as they kept the plane financially viable after its originally intended primary customer/benefactor, the U.S. Air Force’s Light Attack Aircraft program, fell through. However, the cancellation of the USAF program certainly didn’t stop Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) from using the Super Tucano to train the pilots of partner nations (more on these in a bit).
Over 250 Super Tucanos have been built. The plane has a max airspeed of 370mph (590kph/ 320 knots) and a cruise speed of 320mph (520kph/280 knots), and perhaps most significantly, an endurance of more than seven hours before needing to refuel (thus providing a loitering capability far superior to any “fast-mover” jet jock). Armament-wise, the A-29 has a carrying capacity of 3,400 pounds’ (1,542.21kg) worth of missiles and bombs, backed up by two .50 caliber (12.7mm) wing-mounted machine guns and a pod-borne GIAT M20A1 20mm cannon below the fuselage. The latter two gun systems deliver a rate of fire of 1,100 rounds per minute and 650 round per minute respectively, which comes in quite handy for strafing operations.
Tucano Terminates the “Tangos” (Terrorists)
As for the Super Tucano’s applicability for counter-insurgency/counterterrorist operations, my 19FortyFive colleague Daniel Goure sums it up quite succinctly:
“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.”
From there, Daniel goes on to quote U.S. Rep. Michael Waltz (R-FL, District 6), who is the first Green Beret ever elected to Congress and therefore most assuredly knows a thing or two more about counter-insurgency warfare than the typical politician: “‘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.’”
Going back to the subject of foreign allies’ pilots, among the countries’ air forces that have taken this to heart are those of Lebanon and Nigeria. For the latter country, the A-29 will be quite helpful for the fight against the infamous Boko Haram terror group. Indeed, Kathleen Fitzgibbon, Chargé d’Affaires for the U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Nigeria, officially stated upon the in-country arrival of the first six such warbirds a year ago, “Beyond the new hardware that you see on this runway, this program has brought our two militaries closer in formal training, professional development, air base construction, logistics planning, and negotiations. We are proud to partner with Nigeria in its ‘whole of government’ approach to end violent extremism and ensure a more stable, prosperous country for all Nigerians.”
A-29 for Taliban?
The U.S. also sold 12 Super Tucanos to Afghanistan between January 2016 and March 2018. As a result, on 22 March 2018, the A-29 made a wee bit of aviation history: the Afghan Air Force used the plane to drop a GBU-58 Paveway II bomb and destroy a Taliban compound in Farah, near the Iranian border, thus marking the first time the Afghan military had dropped a laser-guided weapon against the Taliban.
Alas, of course, Afghanistan fell to those same Taliban back in 2021, which meant that the extremist group now had possession of the planes that had been originally sent to fight them.
Fortunately, the Taliban found most of them to be inoperable, in addition to lacking the necessary expertise to operate them, which resulted in the Super Tucanos remaining grounded.
As a final well-deserved slap in the face to the newly-reconstituted terrorist state, a few of the A-29s had managed to escape to Uzbekistan, and the Uzbeks refused the Taliban government’s request to return the planes. As Uzbek government spokesperson Ismatulla Irgashev bluntly stated, “The U.S. government paid for them to support a previous Afghan government. Therefore, we believe that it is Washington’s full responsibility to deal with these aircraft.”
In short, no Taliban Tucanos need apply.
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).