Taliban vs. Turboprops: Afghanistan’s New Attack Planes
On January 15, four A-29 attack planes touched down at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan. For a project beset by seemingly never-ending delays and military-industrial rivalries, the event was a major milestone.
The A-29 is a variant of the Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano—a light, flexible turboprop that serves as a trainer and supports troops on the ground. The Pentagon plans to buy a total of twenty A-29s as part of military aid package for Afghanistan’s air arm.
“The turboprop light attack aircraft will restore a fixed-wing attack capability that the Afghan Air Force hasn’t had since the last century,” U.S. Air Force Col. Michael Pietrucha, who has served as an irregular warfare operations officer, wrote in an email.
In a December article for War Is Boring, Pietrucha argued that light-attack planes like the A-29 are ideal low intensity and counter-insurgent warfare. “The A-29 is relatively easy to maintain, rugged, massively fuel efficient compared to jets, and has pretty decent endurance.”
The single-engine Super Tucano has a maximum speed of nearly 370 miles per hour and a range of nearly 700 miles while carrying more than 3,000 pounds of weaponry. The single-seat turboprops have a .50-caliber machine gun in each wing and can a variety of bombs, rockets and gun pods. To help spot targets, the aircraft have powerful cameras that work in poor weather or at night.
Embraer has sold versions of the EMB-314 to more than a dozen militaries as either a trainer or light attacker. The Brazilian firm paired up with American aviation company Sierra Nevada Corporation to provide the planes for the Afghans.
The A-29 is a very good plane—and couldn’t come sooner. As the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan draws down, the aerial support it provides to Kabul’s forces will eventually leave as well. Western jets still provide vital air cover during operations against the Taliban and other groups.
“This is a fighting aircraft which will destroy the centers of enemies in the country,” an Afghan air force public affairs officer, referred to only as Col. Bahadur, told U.S. Air Force reporters. “This fighting aircraft will provide security and combat support from the ground units in ground operation.”
With the new A-29s, the Afghan air force hopes to take an important step toward plugging this dangerous gap. But Kabul still has a number of hurdles to overcome before the aircraft has any real effect on the battlefield.
The recent history of Kabul’s nascent air arm is a lesson in building one from scratch.
For some fifteen years, its air force has been without a fighter or attack aircraft of any kind. While the Soviet Union sold various MiGs and Sukhois to the country during the Cold War, few, if any were still flyable by the time the coalition rolled into the country in 2001.
Instead, Afghan pilots have relied on a fleet of aging Mi-24 Hind gunships and hastily armed Mi-17 transport helicopters. In April 2015, small MD-530F helicopter gunships arrived to help. There are several four engine C-130 and smaller single engine C-208 transports. An earlier Pentagon plan to put 16 twin-engine G.222 cargo haulers into action fell apart due to mechanical problems, a lack of spare parts and other issues. American officials eventually sold the planes as scrap for six cents on the dollar.
Afghan officials have not been particularly pleased with these sorts of results. In September 2015, Afghan air force chief of staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Dawran complained to the New York Times about the C-208’s shortcomings in Afghanistan’s high altitudes and hot weather. Col. Qalandar Shah Qalandari, Afghanistan’s most decorated pilot, had similar feelings about the MD-530Fs. “This plane is a total mess,” Qalandari told the Times. “To be honest, I don’t know why we have this plane here.”
A former Hind pilot, Qalandari was not impressed by the MD-530F’s armament. Compared to the 23-millimeter cannons and rockets on the Mi-17s and Mi-24s, the new helicopters only have two .50-caliber machine guns. With this in mind, the Pentagon is working on adding rocket pods for extra firepower.
Of course, even these Russian choppers—with top speeds of 200 miles per hour or less and ranges of around 300 miles—can’t always handle Afghanistan’s imposing terrain. “If you look at a topographical map you’ll see just how limiting that actually is in Afghanistan,” Pietrucha explained.
The A-29 was supposed to offer a higher-performance weapon for Kabul’s air crews two years ago. That is, if it weren’t for Embraer and Sierra Nevada’s competitor Hawker-Beechcraft squabbling over the contracts to build them.