Coming to Afghanistan: The Super Tucano and the Afghan Air Force


2013-04-02 In the first two parts of our series on the build out of the Afghan Air Force, we looked at the importance of the air power transition in Afghanistan and the training of the Afghan Air Force.

According to the NATO Air Training Command: the goal of the NATO air advisory team is to shape a “strong Afghan Air Force partner successfully assuring the present and future security of Afghanistan.”

A key piece of equipment in the plan is to acquire the Super Tucano.

The role, which this type of aircraft can provide for Counter Insurgency Operations, was identified and discussed in our 2011 interview with Bill Buckey, former Deputy Commander of the NATO Airbase at Kandahar in 2009 and now vice-president for business development for Embraer North America.

The Super Tucano brings significant capability to the Afghan Air Force for the COIN fight. Credit Image: Embraer

According to Buckey:

SLD: How does a turbo-prop compare to unmanned aircraft in providing such a savings or performing such a role? 

Buckey: One of the things that the special operations forces, who started the idea of the whole Imminent Fury piece, wanted was the ability to have a partner in that light attack platform; a TAC-A or supporting arms coordinator that would be above them in the air and who, if things got ugly, could then marshal in other aircraft.  The guys sitting at Creech can’t do that. 

The individual in the backseat of the aircraft is the one that’s going to be communicating to these jets who are still 30 minutes away – 15 minutes away, an hour away – and giving them the target brief and the whole situational awareness piece of what’s going on while they ingress; which is something that your guy at Creech is not going to be able to do. 

But now that’s the tactical piece.  The operational piece is back to the whole COIN environment.  Again, if what you’re trying to do in a COIN environment is drive your cost of doing business down as close as you can to the level of the other guy; right now, UAVs ain’t cheap. 

You’ve got a tremendous logistics piece; you’ve got the sophisticated communications infrastructure required to fly them.  You’ve got the whole piece back in CONUS in order to operate them.  Your cost of doing business is huge and you also have reliability issues. The accident rates are not great with UAVs right now. 

And in terms of that ability to act as FAC-A, that’s something that you just can’t get with a UAV.

SLD: And presumably, your ground and air team are forcing the insurgents to do something vis-à-vis your ground element.  This is what was often not recognized is people are not placidly waiting around. So essentially your ground element is affecting their behavior.  So you want your air tool to be part of a quick response to the behavior they are creating on the insurgent’s part. 

Buckey:  And it may be a four to six-hour operation because if it doesn’t necessarily happen when you want it.  The other guy gets a vote when he wants to move.  And the problem with cycling in fast movers is if I am a JTAC on the ground, or let’s say I’m a FAC-A, is how many times am I giving target briefs to a new crew?  Every thirty to forty minutes I’ve got a new callsign checking-in; maybe even less than that depending on whose available, time/distance, tankers, etc. 

But I’m spending a lot of my time briefing new crews; whereas if I’m working with a platform with greater persistence, not only am I giving fewer target briefs, he’s constantly building Situational Awareness over a greater period.  I have more time to focus on the target while he’s building up more and more SA. 

From the aircrew perspective, if I’m checking-in in a fast-mover, I may have 30 or so minutes on station.  I’ll get a good target brief and I’ll be able to build a certain level of SA.  But am I able to absorb as much as someone who is on-station for hours?  No.

SLD:  So to summarize your thinking about a COIN aircraft, you want to drive down the cost of providing close air support to the guys on the ground.   You want manned air for the roles that you have described – to be involved with the ground commander, the ability to loiter, the engagement, the systems to provide the “find/fix” piece and the persistence to be there for the “finish.”  You want sufficiently lethal manned airborne presence but at lower cost than a fast jet. 

Buckey: We have the systems and the weapons to pair up with a turboprop aircraft that has the persistence to get us through the entire “find/fix/finish” process at a substantially reduced cost that is more appropriate for air operations in a COIN environment.

We had a chance to continue our discussion with Buckey in late March 2013 about the coming of the Super Tucano to Afghanistan and the planning approach for its inclusion in the Afghan Air Force.

SLD: The Super Tucano will enter into a certain period of history where there is significant training experience of a positive sort and not so positive of a set of experience with maintainability experienced by the C-27J experiment.  What is your thinking about the challenge of aircraft robustness and maintenance and the approach to working with the whole training regime going forward?

Buckey: The good news is that the Super Tucano was made to be low maintenance.  It was designed to operate in very remote areas of the Amazon Basin and the frontier areas, if you will, of Brazil. In that sense, it is well suited to the challenges that the Afghan Air Force will be facing, for training the fledgling Afghan Air Force.

SLD: And how will the training for the aircraft be approached?

Buckey: Initially the training of the trainers will occur in the continental United States.  They will be trained at a facility in New Mexico.  Air Force personnel and contractors will be trained in conditions similar to Afghanistan.  And then the effort will move to Afghanistan for training at two separate sites. The most likely Afghan candidates for training will come from those already with rotary and some fixed wing experience.

SLD: How will the Afghans be trained to maintain the aircraft?

Buckey: Initially, the US Air Force and contractors will be trained in these skills and then those skills transferred to the Afghans in Afghanistan.  The aircraft was designed from the outset to require a very small number of maintainers to be able to work on it. A lot of the components are built in the United States and are extremely reliable.

The aircraft was also built to be maintenance friendly, if you will. You open up the panels, there’s plenty of room to work. Ease of excess to the avionics and the engine compartment are much more maintenance-friendly.

Of all the airplanes that you could possibly want to put in this kind of environment, both in terms of the operating environment but also the new build out of an air force, this is an ideal one.

And you can see just by virtue of the fact that this airplane is now on three continents, four if you now include the United States Air Force in North America, but it’s in Central and South American air forces, it’s moving now to three different air forces in Africa, and they’re all accessing this airplane because of its capabilities but also because it’s very, very simple to maintain.

SLD: There is also a significant advantage which accrues to the Afghan Air Force as it uses the airplane to work with other Air Forces worldwide with Super Tucano experience.

Buckey: I believe so. In terms of the counterinsurgency record that the aircraft has established in Columbia, the border security counterdrug record that it’s established in Brazil, and the counterdrug record that the Dominican Republic has shaped in concert with the U.S. Twelfth Air Force, there are multiple lessons learned across a wide range of operational environments that countries will be able to access and employ, utilize, learn from with the experiences of Air Forces with A-29.  There is a global learning group if you will.

For the first two parts of the series see the following: