In April, the Afghan Air Force (AAF) reached a major milestone in its development. For the first time since the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the AAF has engaged in live combat using modern-day fixed-wing combat aircraft.
At the core of its revived fixed-wing fighter fleet is the Embraer/Sierra Nevada A-29 Super Tucano. The A-29 is a close variant of the Embraer EMB-314, a lightweight turboprop aircraft designed for basic fighter training, close air support (CAS), and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).
As part of the Light Air Support (LAS) program, envisaged to provide the U.S. and a number of its allies with dedicated counterinsurgency (COIN) combat aircraft, the AAF was slotted to receive 20 A-29s. The first four A-29s were delivered in January of this year, with another four joining the AAF in March.
It is evident that the AAF’s revival is being anchored on COIN and CAS. As far as its leading patron – the U.S. – is concerned, neutralizing armed non-state actors (that threaten Kabul) is the AAF’s mission at this time. In the lead-up to the A-29 Super Tucano, the AAF inducted MD-530 lightweight utility helicopters and Mi-24/35 air assault helicopters.
With its 1550kg payload (spread across five hardpoints), the A-29 Super Tucano is pitched as a COIN and CAS aircraft capable of deploying precision-guided munitions, such as laser-guided missiles as well as laser and INS/GPS-guided bombs. In effect, the A-29 should be capable of engaging moving ground targets as well as fortified fixed positions.
The ‘payoff’ of using an A-29 over say a multi-role fighter jet such as the F-16 is the A-29’s substantially lower operational cost. By using a less demanding turboprop powerplant, the A-29 is viewed as having a substantially lower per-hour flight cost than the F-16 or another comparable fast jet.
While one may debate the cost-benefit value of these platforms, it is difficult to deny one of the most glaring truths of today’s COIN environment – the minimal anti-air warfare (AAW) threat posed by most of today’s non-state actors.
A multi-role fast jet capable of flying at high-altitude would have considerable cushion against low-altitude AAW methods, such as man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS). But we have yet to see dedicated COIN platforms such as the A-29 take on such high-risk environments, especially against MANPADS that could potentially make use of modern imaging infrared (IIR) seekers (which boast considerable protection against electronic countermeasures or ECM).
On the other hand, this fact does not discard or undermine the potential cost-savings of using an A-29-like platform in a low AAW-threat environment; if one’s reality is of low AAW threats, why not use the cheapest platform capable of fulfilling the task?
The A-29s are being provided to the AAF on Washington’s dollar, so the move to equip the AAF in this manner (around COIN-specific platforms) could be seen as intentional – to weaken the insurgent drive in Afghanistan. Harmonization (with the platform, CAS tactics, etc) aside, it will be important to see if the AAF manages to dampen the momentum of non-state actors with the Super Tucano.