Meeting the needs of the warfighter from the air

The leading contenders from day one have been the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano and the Hawker Beechcraft AT-6. And, they are today, both vying for the contract to supply aircraft and training for the Air Force’s Light Air Support program in Afghanistan--Embraer in partnership with Sierra Nevada Corporation and Hawker Beechcraft with Lockheed Martin.

The Air Force has said it will announce its decision in June.

The story of how we got here and why it has taken so long is telling and alarming, if you are concerned, like I am, with providing our men and women on the ground in Afghanistan the best air support for their mission.

Four years ago the Super Tucano was already a proven platform, flying missions for military in several nations. Four years ago the U.S. Navy got busy evaluating the Super Tucano, conducting flight evaluations that included ISR missions, Close Air Support missions, Direct Action missions, and FAC(A) missions. The Navy also conducted weapons evaluations; deploying rockets and bombs, and .50cal ammunition from the aircraft’s internally mounted guns.

Four years ago Hawker Beechcraft was still working on the design of the AT-6.

The Super Tucano participated in several Navy, Air Force, and special operations exercises.  The exceptional performance of the aircraft was acknowledged by all who benefited from its capabilities. Nearly 400 hours were logged in the air. Many hours were spent on the ground making good use of the aircraft’s available space to add additional radios and displays to give the aircraft an exceptional capability equal to or exceeding that of some of the Navy’s and Air Force’s fixed wing strike/fighter aircraft.

The entire effort to include personnel, operations, and maintenance cost the taxpayer less than $5 million. Rapid reaction at its best. Meanwhile Hawker Beechcraft was still working on a prototype AT-6C.

By the spring/summer of 2010 the Navy, with the Air Force onboard, was ready to lease four more Super Tucanos to deploy in support of troops on the ground in Afghanistan. Meanwhile Hawker Beechcraft was flying its first prototype, but still had a ways to go before weapons testing would be conducted. However, the Navy never leased the A-29. The Kansas delegation, worried that their hometown company would lose out on this opportunity, got the lease killed.

So, today we await the outcome of the Air Force contract, which will finally provide light air attack support and training in Afghanistan. And, while the Air Force has stated that technical capabilities should be the primary selection criteria, Hawker Beechcraft has its PR machine in overdrive trying to focus attention elsewhere.

An example of this is a recent piece written by Dr. Goure of the Lexington Institute titled “AT-6 Meets The Need For An Affordable Light Attack Aircraft.” There are many problems with Dr. Goure’s piece, but one that is particularly troublesome is his contention that the AT-6 is the “low-risk” solution because it avoids the “political, logistical and operational challenges that would inevitably arise if a foreign-built aircraft were selected.”

Never mind the logistical and operational challenges that are bound to arise with a plane that is today still a prototype. Currently only two exist; yielding limited flight data to accurately understand how the modified airframe will perform with its new cockpit displays, new engine and other modifications let alone determine its affordability.

Never mind the facts that the A-29 Super Tucano has logged 100,000 hours around the world, has a proven track record and performed well in combat situations to include the destruction of FARC rebel camps in the jungles of South America. Its affordability is known, its reliability has been established, and A-29 Super Tucano’s 133 variations of armament configurations offer the warfighter a multitude of options.

Never mind that the A-29 will be built in the U.S. with parts from American suppliers.

Ultimately what’s important is that our aviators are equipped with the best aircraft that ensures the highest degree of safety and success in delivering the needed support on the ground.  The warrior on the ground along with loved ones at home don’t care about the company behind the plane. It’s time to set politics aside and get serious about focusing on the needs of the warfighter now. 

CDR James H. Flatley, IV USN, (Ret), a combat decorated naval aviator, served for 22 years flying the F-14 Tomcat. He served as the commanding officer of a squadron deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom flying close air support and FAC(A) missions. He was awarded the Bronze Star and 4th Air Medal with bronze star distinguishing device.