By Paul Bertorelli
Last week, when I was being shown around Embraer’s new U.S.-assembled A-29 Super Tucano with a group of journalists, the first thing that caught my eye was a big covered something sticking out of each wing. In an age of remote control drones and smart bombs, that couldn’t possibly be a machine gun, could it? It sure enough was said our Embraer guide. The A29, in a throwback to the days of mano a mano air combat, has a single .50 caliber gun in each wing, although not the same Browning model used in just about every U.S.-made aircraft that carried such weapons, but an FN Herstal.
File that, I guess, under the more things change, the more they stay the same. It got me wondering how far you have to go back to find the last time a single-engine propeller aircraft had wing-mounted guns. I can’t think of anything later than say the T-28, which appeared in the 1950s, but actually had guns in pods on hardpoints. Before that, it would have been the Douglas A-1 Skyraider, but it had a pair of 20mm cannons in each wing. It emerged just at the end of World War II and saw duty in Korea and Vietnam. None of those airplanes were intended for air-to-air gunnery, although a pair of Navy AD’s claimed one of the first Mig kills during the Vietnam war after a hapless Mig-17 pilot thought a head-on pass against eight 20mm cannons was a good idea. And like the T-28 and A-1, the Tucano’s guns are intended for ground support, keeping alive what first appeared 100 years ago: the ground strafing attack.
As we were told at the Embraer unveiling of the A-29 last week, these U.S.-assembled variants, built by Sierra Nevada Corp., are destined for the budding Afghan Air Force, where they will be used as both training and light air support aircraft. What I found interesting is that despite 40 years of aeronautical progress, the A-29 has similar range and payload as the T-28, although at 280 knots, it’s quite a bit faster than the old round-engine Trojan. It’s also much more flexible than the T-28, carrying a range of bombs, rockets and guns in five hardpoints. But depending on how it’s configured, the A-29 isn’t a super load hauler, even if all the hardpoints are given over to ordnance. It can haul about 3300 pounds, if no external fuel is needed.
In theory, that shouldn’t matter because state-of-the-art airplanes like the A-29 have—potentially–a great field leveler a T-28 pilot couldn’t have dreamed of: precision guided munitions. Even with fewer bombs or smaller bombs, the modern aircraft can do far more damage because it puts the ordnance on the target so precisely. What used to require five or 10 bombs may now require just one so theoretically, the relatively light Tucano should be able to punch far above its weight.
But here’s where things get a little murky. Sierra Nevada said it’s talking to Boeing about fitting the Tucano with some kind of PGM, but it didn’t specify what. Presumably it could be the DOD’s JDAM system, or something similar. But you can imagine that there must be some sensitivity to turning this technology over to a foreign government, especially one in the Middle East. When I asked the Air Force about this, I was told that no decision has been made yet, including even an agreement in principle that the Afghan airplanes can have this technology. I’m sure it can’t be lost on Pentagon planners that the U.S. is now, improbably, using $30,000 JDAMs to destroy armored Humvees seized by ISIS fighters from the Iraqi Army, at $250,000 a pop. CNN says the tally is 41 vehicles so far. (They also used a $339 million-each F-22 to bomb a building. One F-22 represents about 80 percent of the entire 20-airplane Tucano contract.)
Sierra Nevada’s Taco Gilbert said even if the Tucano doesn’t get PGM capability, it would still prove effective because countries using it report excellent dumb bomb accuracy. (Gilbert, by the way, is a retired one-star with Air Force expertise in bombing technology.) The airplane can be equipped with a constantly computed impact point bomb aiming system that’s supposed to be nearly as accurate as PGMs. Well, maybe.
But PGMs have revolutionized air support by simultaneously improving target accuracy while keeping aircraft and pilots beyond the envelope of defensive ground fire. It’s the rare example of a weapons technology almost too good to be true because it delivers better results with lower risk to pilots. That’s how the Pentagon has and continues to sell this technology. The A-29 goes against the grain of traditional defense spending. The services and their congressional overseers have become so addicted to large, high-dollar weapons system that a modest idea like the A-29 hardly gets a second look. Yet with the right technology, it could be (and has been) a lethal bomber in places where people on the ground don’t have radar-guided AAA or significant missile capability. Oddly, that seems to be most of the places where U.S. forces or their allies seem to be fighting these days. If the A-29 doesn’t get all the tools available to make it as potent as it really could be, perhaps because of politics or internecine service squabbling, it could end up just another forgotten weapons buy that could have been.
Give it two or three years and see if the U.S. Air Force can train up the Afghans to use the A-29 or, at least, keep the next wave of invading hordes from getting their mitts on it.