In response to the budget-busting operating costs of high-end combat aircraft, light planes intended for lower-intensity operations have become popular among many of the world’s air forces. One of the most prominent examples is the Embraer EMB 314 Super Tucano (called the A-29 in American parlance), a small turboprop plane which looks more like a World War II-era fighter than a modern combat aircraft. Nevertheless, the Super Tucano has seen remarkable export success, with the following countries having Super Tucanos either on order or in service: Afghanistan, Angola, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Ghana, Honduras, Indonesia, Lebanon, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Senegal. The United States has also operated Super Tucanos for as part of its program to train Afghan pilots. This article will explore the Super Tucano’s capabilities and the circumstances behind its popularity.
A propeller plane for the 21st century
The Super Tucano is an evolution of the original EMB 312 Tucano, a turboprop trainer which was developed from the outset for low-intensity combat operations, with features such as pylons for up to 1,000 kg of payload, a bubble canopy, ejection seats, etc. This versatility led to significant export success and some usage in counter-drug and counter-insurgency operations.
The Super Tucano improves on its predecessor in a number of areas. Its 1,600 hp Pratt & Whitney PT6A-68C engine has more than twice the power of the Tucano’s 750 hp unit, and its airframe has been strengthened as well, allowing for up to 1,500 kg of payload and a longer operational life. Twin wing-mounted .50 cal machineguns are standard, and a FLIR AN/AAQ-22 Star SAFIRE II sensor can be fitted for ground attack missions. For countries with a dearth of paved airstrips, the Super Tucano offers the capability to operate from unimproved runways thanks to its robust construction and large, low-pressure tires.
Advanced avionics are one of the Super Tucano’s selling points; despite its low cost, the aircraft incorporates many of the features found aboard fourth-generation multirole fighters, such as a glass cockpit with two LCD displays, a hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS) control layout, night vision and helmet mounted display compatibility, laser inertial and GPS navigation, and more. It can be fitted with radios and datalinks as specified by the customer. When the Super Tucano is used as a trainer, pilots benefit from using avionics which better approximate those of high-end aircraft.
The incorporation of modern avionics and datalinks allows the Super Tucano to utilize a wide variety of weapons. For strike missions, the aircraft can employ a variety of dumb and smart bombs, 70 mm rocket pods, and gun pods (up to 20 mm). For light air-to-air duty, short-range infrared missiles, such as the AIM-9, Python, and MAA, are supported. Defensive systems include a radar warning receiver and infrared flares.
Low purchase costs are one of the Super Tucano’s main advantages over higher-end aircraft. Unit prices tend to vary from buy-to-buy based on the terms of the contract and the spec of the aircraft; in 2009, the Dominican Republic purchased eight Super Tucano airframes for $8.8 million USD apiece, but logistics packages, weapons, and communications equipment brought the eventual unit price to around $11.6 million. However, recent American buys of Super Tucanos for Afghanistan have come out to between $20 and $30 million because of inflation, different equipment, the inclusion of long-lead spares, and other factors. This is still far below a full-capability multirole fighter, which generally runs $70+ million for the plane alone, with logistical support and training easily pushing prices over $100 million per airframe.
Low operating costs are another highly attractive feature; the Super Tucano flies for around $1,000 an hour due to its turboprop engine and rugged construction; many times cheaper than even the smallest combat jets such as the Textron Scorpion, which flies for $3,000 an hour. Considering full-fledged combat jets generally cost many tens of thousands per flight hour, the savings offered by the Super Tucano are truly remarkable when compared to a high-end aircraft.
Export success and combat history
These features have proved appealing to a number of air forces engaged in low-intensity conflicts which require cheap ISR and ground attack capabilities. Colombia, for example, has used its Super Tucanos to great effect in numerous operations against FARC insurgents. In one operation, nine Super Tucanos dropped forty 500 lb guided bombs, killing 36 fighters and supporting ground operations which captured many more.
Details surrounding Super Tucano operations in Afghanistan are more sparse. NATO headquarters cited a figure of “more than 260 sorties” flown in 2016, a number which has undoubtedly increased since. While the USAF has confirmed that the Afghan Super Tucanos had performed strikes, certainly not all of the 260 sorties involved weapons release; training flights, intelligence gathering missions, etc. were almost certainly included in the figure.
Given its poor maximum speed and low service ceiling, the Super Tucano is not suited to intercepting jet aircraft. It does, however, excel against propeller-driven aircraft such as the Cessnas and other general aviation planes used in smuggling operations. The Dominican Republic reports that its fleet of eight Super Tucanos has been such a strong deterrent that the hundreds of drug smuggling overflights which used to take place have virtually ceased. For a relatively small country such as the Dominican Republic, with an air force of 5,000 personnel, light turboprop planes such as the Super Tucano are essentially the only way to acquire escort and interception capabilities.
While capable of light bombing, heavier and more complex air-to-ground munitions, such as cruise missiles and 2,000 lb bombs, are not supported by the Super Tucano due to payload limitations. Large electronic warfare and targeting pods are excluded for the same reason, leaving the Super Tucano vulnerable against guided anti-air munitions. Thus, the Super Tucano makes lots of tactical and economic sense for operations in uncontested environments where the targets are relatively soft. In these types of scenarios, it performs the exact same mission as a high-end jet at a tiny fraction of the price. However, when the question shifts to high-intensity combat against air defenses, ships, or other aircraft, the Super Tucano would no longer be of much utility. This explains why Super Tucano customers have generally been states with significant domestic security challenges and few reasons to fear a conventional military conflict against a high-end adversary.
Will the US join the owners club?
There has recently been much ado about the US Air Force’s OA-X “program,” which is exploring the possibility of procuring low-cost aircraft for bomb trucking and surveillance missions in permissible environments such as Iraq and Afghanistan. “Program” is somewhat of a misnomer, as OA-X is currently structured more like a technology demonstration and it is unclear whether or not the Air Force will actually buy a light attack aircraft.
In any case, the Super Tucano and the Beechcraft AT-6B Wolverine, another turboprop, are the only two entrants which meet all of the USAF’s requirements; the L3/Air Tractor AT-802L Longsword lacks an ejection seat, while the Textron Scorpion is not capable of operations from runways.
According to Jane’s and other sources, the USAF is considering a real-world test in the Middle East, although there has not been funding designated for this endeavor. Interestingly, the USAF already pitted the AT-6B and Super Tucano against each other when deciding which to purchase for Afghanistan; however, the Super Tucano was chosen not because of superior test results but because of issues with Beechcraft’s proposal which resulted in the AT-6B’s exclusion from the competition, leaving the Super Tucano the default winner.
Whether or not the US Air Force will go ahead with the program and procure OA-X airframes is anyone’s guess, but that heavyweights such as the US are looking into light attack aircraft at all signifies the extent to which counterinsurgency has become an important mission worldwide, a trend which is driving growth in the sector. However, with the wars in Iraq and Syria beginning to wind down as ISIS suffers battlefield defeats, the US has begun to refocus its efforts towards high-end warfare. Proponents of OA-X would posit that using light aircraft for low-intensity conflicts helps free up high-performance aircraft for operations in other areas, and thus programs such as OA-X are not necessarily detrimental to the high-end mission. As with most procurement questions, only time will tell whether or not OA-X comes to fruition and selects the Super Tucano — what is clear now is that the Super Tucano will continue seeing sales to conflict-embroiled regions with or without an order from the United States.