The U.S. Air Force’s program to acquire a light attack aircraft appears to be on hold indefinitely. One issue that contributed to the decision to cancel its planned procurement and to re-open the OA-X experiment with alternative platforms was uncertainty regarding the international demand for a light attack platform. However, the international market appears to have made its choice. The A-29 Super Tucano, built by a team headed by Sierra Nevada Corporation and Embraer, is leading all possible contenders.
In a move that surprised the aerospace industry, defense experts and even some within their own Service, the leadership of the Air Force announced in mid-January that it was indefinitely postponing its competition to acquire a light attack aircraft. Instead of going ahead with a competitive procurement between the two aircraft that had successfully passed the two-year experiment, the A-29 Super Tucano and AT-6B, the Air Force announced that it was not ready to make a selection and intended to continue the experiment with the possible inclusion of other platforms. Somewhat muddying its newly-announced strategy, the Air Force declared that it would immediately acquire three each of the A-29 and AT-6B and as many as 24 additional aircraft, types unknown, over the next five years.
One of the issues that caused the Air Force to postpone its planned procurement was uncertainty regarding the international demand for a light attack aircraft. This was no small concern given the Air Force’s repeated assertions that the primary value of a light attack platform would be its role in elevating the capabilities of partner countries while creating a global ISR network centered on a common communications and data sharing system. The Air Force now says that it intends to conduct a global market survey to determine partner preferences for a light attack aircraft.
A study of the global demand for light attack aircraft may be unnecessary. One aircraft already appears on its way to dominating the market space. This is the A-29 Super Tucano. The sturdy, propeller-driven Super Tucano is a perfect fit for the operational requirements, physical environments and budget limitations of U.S. partner countries. The Super Tucano is currently operated as a light attack/ISR platform by more than a dozen countries including Angola, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Ghana, Honduras, Indonesia, Mali, Mauritania, the Philippines, and Senegal.
The A-29 was built precisely for the kind of conflicts and operating environments relevant to most U.S. partners. Based on a competitive procurement, in 2013 the U.S. Air Force awarded a contract for the A-29 to be provided to the Afghan Air Force (AAF). Based on the proven Embraer Super Tucano aircraft, the A-29 is a relatively simple, sturdy, propeller-driven aircraft, able to operate from austere airfields.
However, the A-29 is equipped with advanced electro-optical sensors, modern avionics, a laser target designator, a 20mm cannon, two 12.7mm machine guns and the ability to carry a wide variety of munitions including precision-guided ordinance. One of the most effective weapons is BAE’s Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System, a 70mm laser-guided rocket with a three-foot miss distance.
The Sierra Nevada/Embraer team also is providing training for Afghan pilots and mechanics, mission planning stations, mission debrief systems, long lead spares, Afghanistan base activation, site surveys and flight certification support.
The Super Tucano/A-29 is inexpensive to acquire and cheap to operate. The basic aircraft sells for about $10 million although the price rises to about $11 million with the addition of training and logistics support. The A-29 variant is estimated to cost between $20 and 30 million but this includes specialized equipment, spare parts and operational support. The Super Tucano costs around $1,000 a flying hour. The cost to operate for the A-29 is certainly higher given its more sophisticated avionics and mission systems, but even at twice the cost per flying hour of the Super Tucano, it is still a bargain for budget constrained partner nations.
The A-29 first began operating in Afghanistan in 2016. Twelve aircraft have been delivered, seven are in the U.S. for training, and another six will be provided to the AAF by the end of the decade. Ultimately, the Afghan Air Force will have approximately 28 A-29s. Over the past eighteen months, Afghan A-29s have conducted hundreds of missions across the country including at high altitudes and in regions with extreme temperatures. Afghan maintainers, trained in the U.S., have demonstrated a growing ability to support a high operational tempo. It is likely that over time additional aircraft will be bought in order to allow the AAF to provide air support throughout Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is not the only country to see the A-29 as the solution to its light attack requirement. Lebanon has taken possession of six A-29s. Another dozen are on order for Nigeria. Others are reported to be negotiating to acquire the Super Tucano/A-29. There is even a possibility that the Super Tucano/A-29 may find a place in parts of Europe where it could be employed flexibly for surveillance/light attack missions against insurgent groups or, armed with advanced anti-tank weapons, take part in a higher end conflict.
The Air Force is well within its rights to do a market survey to find out what partner countries want in the way of a light attack platform. But based on the way many of these nations have already voted with their defense budget resources, the survey could be a brief one. It is difficult to see any other platform successfully ousting the A-29 Super Tucano from its already dominant position in the light attack/ISR space.