A Super Tucano in flight.
The hot trend is third world militaries is to put high technology avionics and weapons in third rate military aircraft, on the theory that air to air combat is rare and that most aerial warfare involves either one shot, one kill air to air combat, or ground to air warfare. In counterinsurgencies, insurgents rarely have any military aircraft and they generally have only limited ground to air defenses.
Why spend extra money on a high tech plane that will rarely, if ever, get to show its stuff when funds are scarce?
U.S. Navy SEALs were aware of this strategy and have apparently followed suit as they develop their own close air support plane.
[T]he Navy has leased an EMB-314 Super Tucano for the job. Made by the Brazilian aerospace company Embraer, it is now being tested on desert ranges in California and the service’s top test facility at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md. The Navy loaded it up with sensors and weapons systems that “would make an F-16 pilot blush,” the source said.
With top end electro-optical and infrared sensors, laser and GPS-guided bombs, rockets, twin .50 cal. machine guns, encrypted radios – and even the capability to tie in UAV surveillance feeds – the Super Tucano outfitted for the SEALs is a ground-pounder’s angel from above. . . .
Over the past year, both Navy and Air Force pilots have flown the leased Super Tucano in tests. According to the source, the single-engine, two-pilot plane has successfully dropped both laser and GPS guided bombs, as well as a wide range of guided and unguided rockets.
According to statistics from an Embraer brochure, the EMB-314 has a maximum speed of nearly 370 mph and a maximum ceiling of 35,000 feet. The plane can take off and land in just under 3,000 feet and can carry a maximum load of nearly 3,500 pounds.
The initial cadre of four SEAL-supporting Super Tucanos will be flown by Navy pilots activated as individual augmentees[.]
The program, allegedly called "Imminent Fury," was designed with the current Afghan War in mind. The only aircraft in the current U.S. military aircraft fleet specifically designed for a close air support role is the aging A-10.
The lease structure of the deal probably arises from political sensitivity to buying foreign aircraft instead of buying them from U.S. job creating American firms. U.S. military special forces have more procurement flexibility than the rest of the military, but also smaller budget lines. The Super Tucano is a commercial off the shelf technology, so the base aircraft involves no R&D risk to the military. The U.S. doesn't have a defense contract in place for any similar aircraft.
The Colombian military recently bought some of these plane for its military for a little less than $10 million each. The advanced sensors and weapons no doubt add to the costs of the U.S. Navy Seal version of this plane, but given that the F-16E/F costs $50 million per export copy, and that much of the cost of an F-16E/F is for the plane itself, this plane is likely to be much cheaper than any of the domestic alternatives, but still adequate for close air support in counterinsurgency campaigns, like the one currently being waged by a coalition of forces including the United States in Afghanistan. A fair estimate might put the purchase equivalent cost of the U.S. Navy SEAL version of the plane at $15-$35 million each.
In contrast, the F-35A, which is the official Air Force replacement for the A-10 (starting in 2028) is likely to cost between $65-120 million each (quite possibly four times as much as the Navy SEAL Super Tucano) and isn't expected to enter actual military service until 2011-2013.
Obviously, the F-35A is a more capable plane than the U.S. Navy Seal plane in many respects. It can fly almost four times as fast, has stealth features that minimize its radar profile, probably has more than four times as much payload capacity, and has vastly superior aerobatic performance (although it won't have the short takeoff and landing capability of the modified Super Tucano, or the proposed Marine and Navy carrier based versions of the F-35). But, these capabilities don't matter much when you opposition is on a pickup truck on an unpaved road or a mule, your opposition doesn't have radar or aircraft, and you intend to drop bombs only in isolated sorties aimed at small units or isolated unreinforced buildings.
Indeed, speed can be a hindrance in the kind of uses that the SEALs contemplate. Fast planes are less fuel efficient and often cannot stay aloft as long. And, slow speeds are better suited to correctly identifying a ground target and staying close to ground units the plane is protecting in any case. A small turbo-prop plane is also easier for an insurgent soldier on the ground with nothing more sophisticated than binoculars to confuse by sound and sight at a distance with a non-combatant commercial aviation aircraft, than a supersonic jet fighter. This kind of stealth may be more important when the opposition lacks radar that the high technology kind sported by an F-22 or F-35. An inability to operate for short, primitive field airstrips may also be a problem for more tradition fighter jets in a place like Afghanistan.