This article is one of a multi-part series examining equipment news from the past year.
Afghan Super Tucano Pilots Trained, Aircraft Deliveries Imminent
Update 1/19/2016: The Diplomat has confirmed the delivery of the first four Super Tucanos (designated as A-29) to the Afghan Air Force. The aircraft and aircrews are reportedly combat ready.
The Afghan air force has been foundering since the US re-built the Afghan military. Afghanistan, with its poor infrastructure and mountainous terrain, is not an easy place to establish a new air force. Possessing only helicopters for offensive actions, the Afghan Army has previously relied on US aircraft to deliver fire support. However, as US troops withdraw from Afghanistan, it has become clear that the Afghan air force will need to be expanded into a real fighting force. However, fledgling air forces would have extreme difficulty operating and maintaining advanced strike aircraft such as the F-16, F-15E, or even A-10 without prior experience.
To resolve these issues, the Afghan air force will receive 20 Embraer EMB 314 Super Tucano turboprop aircraft starting in early 2016. The Afghan pilots, who have been training on the aircraft for months, have been declared combat ready.
Designed as a light fighter and attack aircraft, Super Tucanos cost around $10 million as opposed to $40 million plus for advanced jet fighters. In addition, the Super Tucanos are much easier to operate and maintain. Of course, the Super Tucano would fare quite poorly in combat against a modern jet fighter, but for a country like Afghanistan whose primary concern is insurgents, this matters little. The Tucano can deliver guided munitions and cannon fire on a ground position, which is what the Afghan air force needs for its counterinsurgency campaign. The Tucanos also have aerial surveillance capabilities, but given the relatively small number purchased and the limitations of the aircraft, foreign UAVs will remain a common sight over Afghanistan.
Littoral Combat Ship Buy Cut
The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is a class of small surface ships being built for the US Navy. There are actually two iterations of the Littoral Combat Ship. One variant, the Freedom-class, is a traditional mono-hulled design. The other, the Independence-class, is a trimaran design. Both emphasize speed, shallow draft, automation, and flexibility over lethality and protection. The reasoning for this: since traditional surface combatants are large and costly, the US will need a ship which can operate in the shallow coastal areas where future conflicts may take place and where lower-end adversaries operate. The LCS is optimized for cheaper operating and procurement costs, allowing the US to deploy more ships in more places.
However, as capable adversaries such as China and Russia have become larger concerns for US defense planners, many doubt that the LCS can survive against a near-peer adversary. Lightly armed, the LCS mounts a Mk 110 57mm naval cannon, AGM-114L/N Hellfire missiles and a single SeaRAM unit. This gives it little ability to engage other surface combatants or defend itself against aircraft. In addition, the modular nature of the LCS allows it to perform roles such as mine countermeasures. Many proponents argue that the LCS will perform roles for which additional firepower would be a burden.
The Navy eventually agreed to procure an LCS with additional armament; these new vessels will be classified as frigates (FF). The new design, called the Small Surface Combatant (SSC), adds longer-ranged surface-to-surface missiles, such as the RGM-84 Harpoon, which allows the LCS to strike other ships. A multitude of other design improvements have been incorporated into the SSC as well. Nevertheless, the SSC still lacks long-range anti-air missiles, a feature common among many other frigates.
Despite the Navy’s insistence that it had remedied the issues surrounding the program, the Pentagon decided to cut the overall LCS/FF buy from 52 to 40. It also ordered the Navy to down-select to one hull design, as opposed to the two variants it had previously planned to purchase. In the end, the LCS/FF program was snubbed by the US military’s shift back to pursuing high-end capabilities; the money saved by cutting the LCS/FF buy will go to procurement of high-end assets such as F/A-18s, F-35s, SM-6 missiles, and the Virginia Payload Module. The LCS cuts illustrate Pentagon’s desire to re-focus on fighting large-scale conventional conflicts after 15 years of counterinsurgency operations. It also reflects the stressed state of the Navy’s budget. The concurrent purchase and development of new aircraft, new missiles, new submarines and new surface combatants has caused budgetary issues. The cut also reflects the DoD’s objections to the acquisition of less-capable combatants to bolster ship count, a criticism centered around vessels such as the LCS.
Saudi Arabia Buys Modified LCS
Despite the controversy surrounding the LCS in the United States, Saudi Arabia has decided to purchase 4 modified Freedom-class LCS vessels. They will be outfitted with two eight-cell Mk 41 VLS units and an Airbus TRS-4D naval radar. Ironically, the Saudi Arabian ships will focus on traditional surface combatant tasks such as air defense, which the LCS was not originally intended to fill. A LCS configuration with VLS cells was proposed but not chosen for the US SSC program.
The Saudi Arabian Navy has also purchased a large number of Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSMs), which can be quad-packed in each Mk 41 VLS cell, yielding a maximum of 64 missiles per ship, giving the small frigates a large number of medium-range anti-air missiles. The ESSMs will likely be used in conjunction with longer-range missiles such as the SM-2 and SM-6. Saudi Arabia’s decision to purchase a LCS-derived frigate is interesting, especially considering the number of highly capable frigate designs already available. The strength of US-Saudi defense ties was likely a deciding factor, as well as the benefits of interoperability with US forces.