The U.S. Air Force just bought its first propeller-driven attack airplanes in decades.
The air service just gave Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) a $427 million contract for 20 Embraer A-29 Super Tucano light attack planes. SNC will build the Brazilian-designed planes in Florida. Why on Earth is the Air Force buying planes that strongly resemble World War II fighters equipped with modern bombs and cockpit displays? Because it plans on turning them over to the nascent Afghan air force to fight the Taliban.
The logic goes like this: the Afghans don't need and certainly can't afford to buy, operate, and maintain modern jet fighters (some of which burn more fuel on takeoff than the Super Tucano would use in an hour). Instead, the Afghan military needs a simple, rugged plane that can carry lots of bullets and bombs and stay over targets for long periods of time.
The Super Tucano is designed for exactly that type of mission. It's a so-called COIN (counterinsurgency) plane, and they are used by air forces around the world to do everything from hunting drug smugglers (in Brazil) to combating insurgencies (Colombia). The U.S. Navy tested out a leased Super Tucano in Afghanistan in 2009, flying close air support missions for SEAL teams under a program called Imminent Fury. (Two years ago this month, Embraer flew yours truly to their facilities in Brazil to see the Super T production line and fly the simulator.)
The U.S. efforts to purchase a prop-driven plane go back about five years. Some in the Air Force wanted to buy a fleet of such planes to provide close air support to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. They would have been better suited to such work than the service's aging fleet of fast jets, which were designed to kill Soviet MiGs not strafe insurgents and which cost a fortune for every hour they fly.
However, a number of factors including budget fights and congressional opposition got in the way until the service decided that it would only field a handful of planes and turn them over to the Afghans. Finally, in late 2011, the service gave SNC a contract for 20 planes. That was quickly overturned after rival Hawker Beechcraft protested the contract award. Since then, Hawker Beechcraft has gone bankrupt and, well, you see what's happened.
John Reed reports on the frontiers of cyber war and the latest in military technology for Killer Apps.