January 6, 2012: The U.S. Air Force is buying twenty Brazilian A-29 Super Tucano aircraft for the Afghanistan Air Force. The Super Tucano is a single engine turbo-prop trainer/attack aircraft that is used by over a dozen nations. This aircraft carries two internal 12.7mm (.50 caliber) machine-guns and carries 1.5 tons of bombs and rockets. It can stay in the air for 6.5 hours at a time. It is rugged, easy to maintain, and cheap. The U.S. is paying $17.7 million for each Super Tucano, which includes training, spare parts, and support equipment.
Afghanistan already has hundreds of pilots who could quickly learn how to handle the Super Tucano. This aircraft can be equipped to carry over a half dozen of the 250 pound GPS smart bombs (or half a dozen dumb 500 pound bombs), giving it considerable firepower. The Super Tucano comes equipped with a GPS guidance system. Max altitude is 11,300 meters (35,000 feet) and cruising speed is 400 kilometers an hour. Naturally, this aircraft can move in lower and slower than any jet can. The Super Tucano is also equipped with armor for the pilot, a pressurized cockpit, and an ejection seat. Not bad for an aircraft with a max takeoff weight of 5.4 tons.
The Super Tucano is what the Afghans really need, a bunch of smaller, slower aircraft, that can double as trainers. It's easier to train pilots to use the Super Tucano, cheaper to buy them, and much cheaper to operate them. It costs less than a tenth as much per flying hour to operate a Super Tucano compared to a F-16.
These "trainer/light attack aircraft" can also operate from crude airports, or even a stretch of highway. Aircraft like this can carry systems to defeat portable surface to air missiles. They can carry smart bombs as well. But from the U.S. Air Force point of view, there were several problems to be overcome with these aircraft. First, Super Tucano was not made in the United States, so Congress was not happy about U.S. tax dollars buying non-American warplanes. Second, the U.S. Air Force had no experience with these aircraft. Finally, many in the air force didn't want something like this to succeed in Afghanistan and raise questions about U.S. Air Force tactics and buying decisions. All these obstacles were eventually overcome during the last eight years.