The Combat Effect of the Super Tucano: A Tortured Acquisition Saga Gone Good


2018-01-19 By Robbin Laird

When have you read a positive review of our combat experience in Afghanistan from the Pentagon’s Inspector General?

Not a common experience for sure, but very recently, the IG underscored a significant advance in how the battle in Afghanistan is going forward.

“Less than two years after flying its first combat mission, the Afghan Air Force’s A-29 Super Tucano aircraft are playing a key role in supporting Afghan soldiers on the ground.

“When they show up overhead, the Afghan National Army have the confidence to continue attacking on ground,” the deputy commander for Train, Advise and Assist Command-South said in a new Defense Department Inspector General report.

Absent sufficient air coverage, Afghan security forces who had grown reliant on coalition air power suffered a series of defeats to the Taliban.

Building a native air strike capability within the Afghan Air Force is the key to Afghan success in the future, Army Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2017.

“Close air support and aerial mobility are the most critical remaining gaps that need to be addressed,” Nicholson said. “At the tactical level, the [Afghan National Army] needs to improve its integration of fires and air power.”

In its report, the DoD IG praised the Afghan Air Force for the progress it has made…

This is surely good news, but one can ask why did this take so long?

It has been clear for a number of years, that close air support is a decisive factor in dealing with insurgency in Afghanistan.

Just look at this week’s new movie on Afghanistan with Special Forces riding in Afghanistan on horseback and calling in fire from the air to respond to the attack on the World Trade Center.

We have written from the beginning of Second Line of Defense of the need to shift from a Big Army defined Afghan War to a more effective partnership approach using flexible insertion forces to support the efforts of the Afghans.

Put in other terms, we have focused on how to shape an effective strategy in Afghanistan and one in which a capability like the Super Tucano would become a key building block.

SLD interviewee Johan Feckhaus, a former French military officer and an advisor of Massoud, seen with the leader shortly before Massound’s assassination.

It has been also obvious for a long time that the Super Tucano is a very effective close air support weapon in dealing with the fight against drug lords and terrorists alike.

The Super Tucano’s global track record is clear; and equally clear was the fact that it was the right tool for the United States to buy and get into the hands of the Afghans to empower their ground operations against terrorists.

And when you have shown this is how to fight – CAS with ground maneuver forces–you need to empower your partners to fight the same way.

As Marine Corps General Walters put it upon his return from Afghanistan in 2012

“The Afghan National Army and Afghan Security Forces understand from their perspective, how important air is.

“We have made them big consumers.

“They know that the air is there for them; they’ll go out and operate.”

But why did this take so long when it was very clear that this was the right course?

Or put another way, what lessons can be learned about how to deal with the impediments to getting combat capability into the force as rapidly as possible?

Four A-29 Super Tucanos arrive at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, Jan. 15, 2016. The aircraft will be added to the Afghans’ inventory in the spring of 2016. The A-29 Super Tucano is a ‘light air support’ aircraft capable of conducting close air support, aerial escort, armed overwatch and aerial interdiction. Designed to operate in high temperature and in extremely rugged terrain, the A-29 Super Tucano is highly maneuverable 4th generation weapons system capable of delivering precision guided munitions. It can fly at low speeds and low altitudes, is easy to fly, and provides exceptionally accurate weapons delivery. It is currently in service with 10 different air forces around the world. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Nathan Lipscomb)

The current Air Combat Commander has made it clear that the USAF needs to accelerate the deployment of future capabilities into the combat force, what lessons does the Super Tucano slow roll acquisition highlight?

Ignoring the Warfighter to Have a Competition

The first clear point is that ignoring combat requirements and sidelining urgent requests from key commanders involved in the fight is not something which Congress should aid and abeit.

And how does Congress do this?

By insisting that there be a competition when there is clearly no alternative from the standpoint of combat experience and capability to an existing platform or capability.

This is what Ed Timperlake wrote in 2010:

“General Mattis then Commanding Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) testified about a special forces effort called operation Imminent Fury II. The Department of Defense supported the effort and sent a request to Congress to act.

The entire action from testinomy to request took just a month, which is relative light speed.

But nothing occured.

Then a letter was made public in the Washington Times by Bill Gertz that showed General McCrystal solidly behind the rapid fielding of Imminent Fury II. General Petraeus in the chain-of-command as then CG Central Command forwarded the letter to the Chairman. But nothing happened.

“It turns out that, unlike the recent combat success in Colombia, Imminent Fury II was stopped by Congressional Action. An immediate request for a combat program was not approved by Congress because IF II was going to use the Super Tucano.

The ST is in direct competition with the attempt by the Hawker Beech to convert their T-6 Texan trainer into a combat aircraft–the AT-6.

The T-6 Texan trainer (the basis for the proposed AT-6) is manufactured in Kansas by Hawker Beach a Canadian-owned firm currently in dire financial straits.

There have been reports that, in order to stave off disaster, management has been considering moving some production lines to Mexico.

“It now appears, looking at the Congressional reporting, that stoping IF II was part of a bigger effort to give time, so a combat version of the T-6 could be developed and tested.

Unfortunately the Afghan War goes on and time is short.

Congress has earmarked millions to try and get the T-6 Texan, a US Air Force trainer aircraft, up to combat standards ahead of a pending fly-off competition for equipping the emerging Afghan National Army Air Corps.

This fly off will be a competitive test of ready-to-fly, non-developmental tactical light attack planes that are currently available.

The “AT-6B” version of the trainer is not yet ready.

The non-combat certified AT-6B’s competitor is Brazil’s Embraer A-29 Super Tucano, the FARC killer that has been operational for several years. including several combat missions schwacking FARC guerillas in the dead of night.”

Ignoring at Our Peril Superior Foreign Equipment

The second lesson is to demonstrate once again that the refusal to buy foreign equipment when clearly our allies have the only or the best alternative undercuts our combat performance and endangers lives.

This practice provides a slow roll that hurts the combat force and slows down real combat capabilities simply for show trials, or, sorry, competitions held to slow down the ability to kill adversaries and save American and allied lives.

Competition for competition’s sake is a life killer.

Prioritize the User Community Not the Requirements High Priests

The third lesson is that the core driving opinion that should shape key thinking about enhanced and accelerated combat capabilities are those of the warfighters.

They will rarely have a complete consensus but the user community is more important a guide to the way ahead than is Congress or bureaucratic requirements setters. And this will be especially important in the era of software upgradeable capabilities, like F-35, Wedgetail, P-8, Triton and others, where the business rules need to change to allow the warfighters to more effectively drive change.

As no less an expert than the head of the Air Force Materiel Command put it last year:

“We have to change the way we think about requirements definition if we’re going to really adopt Agile Software Development.

“Maybe the answer isn’t this detailed requirements’ slow down.”

“By the way, once you put it in the hands of the operator maybe some of those requirements you had in the beginning, maybe they don’t make any sense anymore because the operator sees how they can actually use this and they change it.”

Reinforce Partners Rather Than Always Doing the Job Yourself

The fourth lesson is that in ground operational environments involving counter terrorism we should look to shaping partner ground air capabilities rather than focusing on our need to bring in the entire combat force.

It is time to think beyond the A-10 to the Super Tucano.

Hardly the End of Manned Aircraft

The fifth lesson is that a Super Tucano in the hands of the Afghans can be a more effective tool than UAVs run at great distances away in the United States or elsewhere.

Rather than getting carried away with the “end of the manned aircraft” mantra, the Super Tucano is a case study in a different way of thinking about the future.

In an interview in 2011 with Col. (Retired) Bill Buckey, former Deputy Commander of the NATO Airbase at Kandahar in 2009 emphasized what such an aircraft can do versus a UAV:

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.

The Obama Administration Punting the Football

The sixth lesson is that a much more rapid introduction of the Super Tucano along with associated transition in how the Afghan forces could fight would have been a good capability for the Obama Administration to leverage to accelerate progress in the “good war.”

But they simply did not do it.

It was slow mo, slow roll and a strategic failure of the first order.

In short, rather than an LAS experiment, why not get on with the lessons learned and find out what other systems are out there that can make a difference?

As Ed Timperlake notes: “When as a Marine I received my Navy “Wings of Gold” June 1971, a classmate Naval Officer volunteered to fly combat in Vietnam with The “Black Pony” Squadron, VAL-4 flying the OV-10 very up close and personal coma bat action.

“The tragic, the comic, the terrifying, the poignant are all part of the story of the Black Pony pilots who distinguished themselves in the Mekong Delta between 1969 and 1972. Flying their Broncos “down and dirty, low and slow,” they killed more enemies and saved more allies with close-air support during the three years they saw action than all the other naval squadrons combined. The U.S. Navy’s only land-based attack squadron, Light Attack Squadron Four (VAL-4) flew support missions for the riverine forces, SEALs, and allied units in borrowed, propeller-driven OV-10As.”

“Consequently when we began the quest to put the A-29 into Afghan combat operation, especially with three very impressive ground combat General’s Mattis, McCryatal and Petraeus all in support, I figured seven months to success not seven years!”

“Shame on the entire political process that is going on to today which will simply repeat this kind of strategic failure if it is not corrected.”

It has taken the USAF more time to acquire the Super Tucano than it took the United States to fight World War II.

And this in spite of the fact that the combat leadership clearly indicated its desires and intents to the political leadership in the last Administration.

But it simply did not matter in terms of getting capability in the hands of the warfighter and getting on with changing how the Afghan war could be fought.

Editor’s Note: At Second Line of Defense we pride ourselves on working on the emergence of key issues and capabilities important to the warfighter and that is why we called ourselves Second Line of Defense.

We focus on combat capabilities, and avoiding the Greek Chorus of critics of new systems, and capabilities, such as the barrage of criticism of the Osprey when it was clear to us that it was a core transformational capability, which would redefine the USMC and the joint force.

The focus on the Osprey whereby we engaged with the Marines as the Osprey was first stood up at Second Marine Air Wing and then went to Afghanistan and then became a key redefiner of the ARG MEU into the amphibious task force is a good illustration of our approach.

We have done that from the beginning of our publication and work.

The Super Tucano and its projected role in Afghanistan is also a good example of how we have addressed the opportunity to enhance combat capabilities and we saw the Super Tucano and its proven combat record as a low hanging fruit in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan.

Edward Timperlake played a key role in defining and shaping this story and the political roadblocks and needless competitions put in the way by the political system to creating ground truth in Afghanistan is stunning.

In 2010: Altering the Course of War With LAA

In 2011, “Guns, Guns, Guns: The Importance of Light Attack Aircraft”

In 2011, “Re-Visiting the Concept of a Counter-Insurgency Aircraft”

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.

In 2011, “EMB314: Which Gender Issue?”

In 2011, “An Unheralded Victory for the 12th Air Force”

In 2011, “Competing in Brazil”

In 2011, “The USAF Makes a Decision”

In 2012, “An Open Letter to General Schwartz on the Light Air Support Aircraft.”

In 2012, “Brazil’s Fighter Decision: A Strategic Oppportunity”

Is it not interesting that Boeing’s current effort to acquire or work more closely with Embraer could already have been built from a fighter decision which was driven in part by the negative politics of US defense acquisition over the Super Tucano?

And then the Chinese tried to enter the game by trying to buy the company working hard within Congress and the Administration to derail getting on with the Super Tucano acquisition.

In 2012,”A Whole New Twist on Buy America”

Well, the Super Tucano is built by a FOREIGN company and even though the ST was to be built in the United States, an AMERICAN company and its supporters mounted a counter attack.

Sounds familiar.  Northrop and then EADS North America were to build a FOREIGN designed tanker in the United States, but then Boeing and its supporters mounted the charge about FOREIGN or even worse FRENCH companies getting a share of a U.S. (read their) contract.

In both cases, the Kansas Congressional delegation has been heavily involved.  In the first case, they were rewarded with their effort by Boeing pulling out of Wichita AFTER having won an initial tanker contract.

The Kansas Congressional delegation worked overtime to insure that THEIR AMERICAN company, Hawker Beechcraft, would get a contract for its AT-6 trainer (did someone forget the proven combat aircraft piece?) to supply the Afghans.

But along the way the AMERICAN company might well become Chinese.  This is a new twist on BUY an American company to BUY American.

In 2013, “The Way Ahead for Airpower in Afghanistan”

This was a Special Report after we had run a whole series.

In 2013, “Training for Transition: The Re-Emergence of the Afghan Air Force”

Well we could not do it with Super Tucanos, but we could do it with Russian helicopters!

With all the many words on the Super Tucano versus AT-6 competition, what has been lost in the public debate is the real issue: equipping and training the Afghan Air Force to be an effective fighting force able to work with other Air Forces in providing for enhanced Afghan security.

The broad trajectory of change has been to move from a Russian-equipped force in disrepair to shaping a mixed fleet of aircraft able to support the various missions which the Afghans would need: transport, ground support and counter-insurgency ISAR and strike.

A new one is replacing the core fleet of aging Mi-35s and AN-32s.

In 2013, “Colombia Battles the FARC: Turboprops Provide Key Tools”

In 2014, “The Brazilian Fighter Decision and Its Impact”

And in 2014, we published a case study in Joint Forces Quarterly

“The Role of COIN Air Forces in Shaping Partnership Possibilities”

In 2014, “Re-Birth of the Afghan Air Force: Options for the Way Ahead”

It is clear that at the critical point in the initial destruction of the Taliban, that the United States could have avoided a full blown engagement in Afghanistan.

The problem with occupying a country with such a radically different culture from that of the United States will always be clash of cultures, and the legitimacy challenge facing any outside power.

No amount of counter-insurgency theory can change the fundamental reality that occupation by a foreign power will always have a legitimacy problem built in…..

And where we are now in Afghan history, it is important not to provide once again the Big Army solution set of occupation, training and cultural failure.

Another option can be to assist those forces that have been trained, to the level possible, within the constraints of the viability of the political and legal systems.

In 2016, “First Super Tucano’s Heading to Afghanistan: Can the US Strategy Leverage Them?”

We will stop there but feel free to search the website and add more stories; these are just a few of the many we have published about ruggedized airpower and the case of the Super Tucano.

We have written extensively on the Afghan war and how to shift the strategy from a “Big Army” engagement with the other services providing support and jointness being defined to a strategy more likely to lead to longer term success.

Below is an article we published on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 which highlighted interviews we had already done which underscored how to shape an effective strategy and one in which a capability like the Super Tucano would become a key building block.

09/14/2011 As Americans observe the day 10 years ago when terrorists in hijacked planes attacked New York and the Pentagon, the people of northern Afghanistan remember what for them was a greater tragedy two days earlier on Sept. 9, 2001. It was then that two agents of Al Qaeda posing as journalists detonated a bomb hidden in a television camera during an interview with Mr. Massoud, killing him instantly.

For his closest aides, who first tried to keep his death secret, fearing the truth would sink the besieged Northern Alliance for good, the collapse of the World Trade Center towers was a sign of hope. They instinctively saw a nexus in the two acts — though one has never been proved — and knew that the Americans would soon be on their way.

“I sort of woke up out of this shock I had been in since Sept. 9,” Abdullah Abdullah, the Northern Alliance’s former foreign minister, recalled about hearing the news of the attacks in New York. “It automatically came to my mind that out of this tragedy, there might be an opening.”

Earlier we had an opportunity to discuss with Johan Feckhaus, a former French military officer and an advisor of Massoud about the way ahead in Afghanistan.

In our interviews with Freckhaus he connects two broad points.

First, the light footprint followed by the Bush Administration after 9/11 was the right strategy.

The piling on of foreign troops has stirred up a hornets nest of Taliban activity who are using the large scale foreign presence as a recruiting issue. 

The point simply put is that Afghans distrust foreign motives and the large number of troops.

And the foreign troops are backing a centralized government, which is out of sync of broader Afghan national aspirations and objectives. 

Certainly, recent events in the Middle East suggest that building up the power of the Presidency, as a focus of Western activity might well be counterproductive for political progress.

In a recent speech to the Kuwait National Assembly, on 22 February 2011, the UK Prime Minister admitted: “For decades, some have argued that stability required highly controlling regimes (…). [We] faced a choice between our interests and our values. And to be honest, we should acknowledge that sometimes we have made such calculations in the past. But I say that is a false choice.”

Johan Freckhaus also suggested an interesting lesson from history that might just work — a Swiss “neutrality” model from the time of Napoleon.  His observations in his own words are extremely interesting. 

The West can work with Russia, Pakistan and others to shape a neutrality treaty and can assist where appropriate in countering foreign fighters like Al Qaeda and the Taliban seeking to penetrate Afghan territory. 

But the West needs to leave security to the provinces, and work with a much smaller central government tasked with dispensing aid to the provinces, control of the Army and collecting taxes.  B

ut the provinces cannot, nor need, manage large police forces.

In the earlier interview, Olivier underscored the following remarks by Johan:

There is indeed an insurgency in Afghanistan because you have 30 000 or 40 000 rebel fighters – according to allied military intelligence – backed by millions of Afghan civilians, in growing numbers, who feed them, house them, transport them, protect them, give them information and so on.

These civilians are doing it foremost to drive foreign troops out of the country and in rejection of the system we are trying to impose, but do not want the return to power of the mullahs either.

Withdrawing our troops is therefore the right strategy to effectively drive a wedge between the rebels and their supporters.

This famous momentum, this magic moment where the power relationship can be reversed, will come from fair and complete withdrawal of foreign forces, because then the fate of the country will return to its population.

Then the Afghan security forces, as they exist today, would very well be capable, with the help of villagers, of chasing away those rebels on motorcycles mainly armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers, whose most lethal know-how is simply to trigger explosives remotely.

The strategy of “always more” prevalent until today for the Afghan security forces is a dangerous illusion: more troops, more money, more power to the central government, all of this is counter-productive, it fuels the insurgency!

We are building oversized security forces in Afghanistan that the country is far from being able to afford.

We imagine a police state, supported from abroad, which would subject the population to the decisions of Kabul.

We imagine building in a few years, for one of the poorest countries in the world, an army that could successfully maintain in power a hyper-centralized system.

This is not sustainable.” Let’s remember, for the record, that the Afghan government, which now has 140, 000 military and 109, 000 police officers, aims at a 240,000 military and 240,000 police officers force. And that is for a country of about 20 million inhabitants.

In comparison, France, for a population three times larger, has fewer than 170,000 military personnel (ground and air) and 265 000 gendarmes and police officers.

Remembering Massoud