The Cable

Air Force May Soon Deploy New Light Attack Aircraft in Iraq, Afghanistan

It’s taken a decade, but the armed turboprops may finally see combat.

An Afghan Air Force Embraer A-29 Super Tucano aircraft during a training mission on the outskirts of Logar province, Afghanistan. (WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
An Afghan Air Force Embraer A-29 Super Tucano aircraft during a training mission on the outskirts of Logar province, Afghanistan. (WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Ten years after the Pentagon first began discussing the idea of a light aircraft specifically suited for counterinsurgency operations, the U.S. Air Force is preparing to test the idea in combat.

Combat Dragon III, as the test would be called, may send into combat a number of so-called light attack aircraft, significantly cheaper than F-35 fighters or A-10 Warthogs, but capable of surveillance and attack. The two candidates include the A-29 Super Tucano, made by Brazil-based Embraer S.A. and U.S.-based Sierra Nevada Corp., and the AT-6 Wolverine, made by U.S.-based Textron Inc.

The basic idea is that when another aircraft is too expensive, or isn’t right for the job, a prop plane with some weapons attached may do. The U.S. Air Force is preparing to test the low-cost aircraft in combat next year, according to Aviation Week.

Though the service may decide to use just one or neither of the comparatively frugal flyers, “there’s an opportunity for both,” Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokesperson, told Foreign Policy.

Proceeding with the test is still not definite, Stefanek emphasizes, and also depends on companies choosing to participate, among other factors.

Flying an A-10 costs about $18,000 per hour and an F-15 costs about $34,000 an hour, Stefanek said, while the cost to fly light aircraft could be just a fraction of those amounts. That cost per flying hour factors in the unit cost of the planes themselves.

“The Air Force is definitely looking for a lower-cost option than we currently have,” Stefanek said.

Super Tucanos and Wolverines are comparatively ill-suited for countries with sophisticated anti-aircraft systems, so regions without well-developed capabilities, including Iraq or Afghanistan, could be test theaters.

The Air Force narrowed four plane models to two after its light attack aircraft experiment at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico this summer. U.S.-based Air Tractor Inc. and L3 Technologies Inc.’s AT-802L Longsword and another Textron offering, the Scorpion, were the other contenders.

“We learned a lot about what these aircraft can do [in those tests],” Stefanek said, but future combat tests would “test a whole new set of factors,” including combat readiness and operating in a new environment.

The road to buying the aircraft has been bumpy, even if these combat tests go ahead. The idea of a counterinsurgency aircraft first emerged in 2007, amid operations in Iraq, and the Air Force announced a formal competition for light aircraft in 2009. It narrowed the finalists at the time to the A-29 and AT-6 but eventually canceled the purchase.

Congress then blocked the Navy from sending A-29s into battle in 2011, in part because of their maker’s Brazilian origin and in part because the Navy had not held a competition among different companies.

The Afghan air force is already flying its own Super Tucanos, and the United States has ordered additional planes from Sierra Nevada to be delivered to the government in Kabul through next year, according to Aviation Week. Afghan pilots flew their first Super Tucano close air support missions in April, 2016.

John Kester is a Washington, D.C.-based reporter.

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