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6 more A-29 Super Tucano aircraft ordered for USAF Afghanistan program

The U.S. Air Force has ordered six additional A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft for the Afghan Air Force, bringing to 26 the total number of planes to be supplied under the Afghanistan Program, defense contractor Embraer said in a press release.

The Brazilian aircraft manufacturer and its U.S. partner Sierra Nevada Corporation will immediately begin production of the six new aircraft in their Jacksonville, Florida facility.

“We believe this decision demonstrates that the A-29 Super Tucano is the best aircraft for close air support operations, as well as the most proven, reliable and cost-effective solution for counterinsurgency and irregular warfare scenarios,” said Jackson Schneider, president and CEO of Embraer Defense & Security.

A-29 Super Tucanos arrive in Afghanistan
Four A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft arrive at Kabul Air Wing, Kabul, Afghanistan, March 20, 2017, bolstering the Afghan Air Force’s inventory from eight to 12 A-29s. Image: US Air Force/Senior Airman Jordan Castelan

The A-29 aircraft is designed for counter-insurgency and close air support roles, and can also be used for reconnaissance missions in low-threat environments and for pilot training.

Powered by a variant of the world’s most popular turboprop engine rather than a jet, the Super Tucano is relatively cheap to buy, fly and maintain – they cost around $18 million each and about $1,000 per flying hour, compared to around $6,000 per hour for the A-10 Warthog which performs a similar role. Embraer says the A-29 has been selected by 13 air forces worldwide and has clocked up 320,000 flight hours and 40,000 combat hours.

A-29 Super Tucano, Afghanistan
An A-29 Super Tucano light air support aircraft delivered to Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, January 15, 2016. Image: US Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Nathan Lipscomb

Afghan Air Force A-29s

Afghan A-29 pilot
An Afghan A-29 pilot in the cockpit of his aircraft at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, September 10, 2017. Image: US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Alexander W. Riedel

The A-29 flew its first combat mission in Afghanistan in early 2016. Four additional aircraft were delivered to Kabul in March this year, boosting the Afghan Air Force inventory to 12.

Seven aircraft are currently used for pilot training at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia and are due to be transferred to Afghanistan in the coming months. One further A-29 crashed during training in March and has not yet been replaced.

To train the AAF pilots, the 81st Fighter Squadron was established in October 2014 at Moody AFB and a program was designed to produce 30 pilots and 90 maintainers by December 2018. Training began in February 2015 and so far 17 pilots and 48 maintainers have been trained and have returned to Afghanistan.

In August, the Secretary of the Air Force approved the extension of the training program to the end of 2020, “based on the Afghanistan Air Force receiving six additional A-29 Super Tucano aircraft driving requirements for nine more pilots and 20 maintainers.”

Afghan Air Force A-29 Super Tucano
An Afghan Air Force A-29 Super Tucano over Kabul, Afghanistan, August 14, 2015. Image: US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr

The U.S. Air Force’s A-29 Afghanistan program has suffered repeated delays. In 2011, Embraer and Sierra Nevada Corporation were awarded a contract to supply 20 aircraft, but this contract was cancelled in 2012 by USAF leadership over “the quality of the documentation supporting the award decision.” After another tendering process, the A-29 again beat the Beechcraft AT-6, and in February 2013 Embraer and Sierra Nevada Corporation were awarded a $427,459,708 contract under the Building Partnership Capacity program to supply 20 light air support aircraft plus training devices, mission planning stations, mission debrief systems, and spares.

The maximum spend under the contract is fixed at $950,000,000, and it was due to conclude in February 2019.

A-29 Super Tucanos over Afghanistan
Two Afghan Air Force A-29 Super Tucano light air support aircraft fly over Afghanistan, March 22, 2017. Image: US Air Force/Senior Airman Jordan Castelan

US tests light attack aircraft

The A-29 was among three aircraft (including the AT-6) that were tested by the USAF in July and August in the Light Attack Experiment at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.

Part of the Light Attack Experimentation Campaign, the aim of the experiment was to assess the potential of low-cost light attack aircraft to conduct the missions most frequently flown including close air support, air interdiction, combat search and rescue, and strike coordination and reconnaissance.

Chief of Staff of the Air Force General David Goldfein said the Air Force was “determining whether a commercial off-the-shelf aircraft and sensor package can contribute to the coalition fight against violent extremism.”

Goldfein also said that the Air Force may conduct another series of tests in operational context in the Middle East.

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