A cheap, lightweight attack plane from Brazil turns up in conflicts from Colombia to Afghanistan
by SEBASTIEN ROBLIN
Insurgents around the world will soon face a deadly new foe — an airplane which has already played a major role in helping defeat one of the longest-lasting guerrilla armies in modern history.
The aircraft in question is the A-29 Super Tucano, a propeller plane intended as both a trainer and a light attack plane that many complain resembles a fighter straight out of World War II.
But the Tucano is efficient.
Modern jet fighters cost tens of millions of dollars to produce so that they can attain the high speeds and altitudes necessary for defeating other jet fighters — and avoiding deadly surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft guns. But the majority of wars pit governments against insurgents, many of whom do not possess much in the way of anti-aircraft weapons.
Furthermore, jet fighters require enormous amounts of money to keep them fueled and maintained. Those flown by the U.S. Air Force typically run between $20,000 and $70,000 per flight hour and require long runways. Once those jets arrive over the battlefield, they often can’t loiter overhead for very long because of the rate at which they burn fuel.
Hence the Super Tucano. But before this nimble, lethal plane appeared on the scene, there was the EMB-312 Tucano — developed by Brazil’s Embraer in the 1980s.
The Brazilian government wanted a trainer that could double as a light attack aircraft for patrolling the vast Amazon rainforest. Although only capable of flying a leisurely 285 miles per hour, far slower than most World War II fighters, the Tucano’s fuel-efficient engines can keep it aloft for up to nine hours and across ranges of nearly 1,100 miles.
This agile plane comes in both trainer and attack variants (sometimes designated the T-27 and A-27), and can carry up to 2,200 pounds of bombs — and pods for rockets and machine guns — under its wings.
Even better for Brazil, the Tucano EMB 312 found buyers all over the world, and was even manufactured under license in the United Kingdom. Not only did it serve as a trainer in France and Britain, it saw extensive action in a variety of counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics missions in Africa and South America.
The Super Tucano, however, has a longer airframe, a beefed-up engine, additional Kevlar armor that can withstand heavy machine gun fire, and two .50-caliber machine guns in the wing roots.
Though it can go faster than the EMB 312 at 367 miles per hour, the Super Tucano’s greater weight means it has less endurance (eight and half hours) and range (826 miles) than its predecessor. However, it can carry heavier payloads — up to 3,300 pounds of munitions, sensor pods or fuel tanks on up to five hardpoints.
The Super Tucano comes in both the single-seat A-29A variant for surveillance and strike missions, and the two-seat A-29B that can additionally serve as a trainer.
In addition, the plane’s avionics include a laundry list of items you’d expect in a modern jet fighter — electronic displays compatible with night-vision goggles, a throttle integrated into the control stick, GPS navigation, a laser-range finder, a forward-looking infrared sensor, surveillance cameras, provisions for a data-link and a modern targeting computer.
Defensive systems include a radar-warning receiver, and flare and chaff dispensers to help the pilot detect and evade incoming missiles.
The Super Tucano can carry Piranha and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, Griffin laser-guided bombs, Maverick anti-tank missiles and 20-millimeter gun pods … for good measure.
There are even upgrades in the works to allow the plane to drop GPS-guided bombs and smaller, super-precise Small Diameter Bombs. To top it off, the Super Tucano costs just $1,000 per flight hour to operate, and can fly in hot and damp climates typical in its country of origin.
It all looks pretty good.
But the special features do come at cost. Super Tucano contracts have reached up to $14 million per plane, though the United States recently paid around $21 million per plane to supply them to the Afghan air force.
Brazil’s air force, obviously, acquired its own at a much lower price. However, these costs are minuscule to those of contemporary jet fighters that often run $70 million to $100 million or more.
Brazil’s Força Aérea Brasile flies nearly 100 Super Tucanos, two thirds of which are two-seater variants. They have staked out an excellent record patrolling the Amazon in coordination with Brazil’s sophisticated SIVAM airborne surveillance network, intercepting hundreds of drug smuggling aircraft and destroying illegal runways with bombs.
But it was to Brazil’s north that the Super Tucano would make its biggest mark in history.
Colombia’s cross-border killers
In August 2016, the insurgents of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC, agreed to lay down their arms after waging 52 years of guerrilla warfare — a conflict estimated to have claimed the lives of 220,000 people.
Although the peace accord still needs to pass a public referendum in October, the end of the half-century long war appears to finally be at hand.
The FARC began in the 1960s as a communist peasant movement fighting for land reform in Colombia’s impoverished rural areas. In the 1980s and ’90s it became heavily involved in cocaine trafficking and kidnapping for ransom — in turn giving rise to brutal, opposing right-wing paramilitary movements.
A decade and a half ago, the FARC seemed ascendant, controlling large swathes of the countryside and fielding up to 18,000 fighters operating from base camps concealed in Colombia’s extensive jungles.
The Colombian military’s attempts to strike the FARC’s bases, or “Fronts,” repeatedly failed because aircraft had difficulty targeting the camps under dense tree cover. The guerrillas had networks of informants to spy on troop movements, allowing the FARC to evade ground attacks.
Having already employed EMB-312 Tucanos against the FARC, the Colombian air force acquired 25 Super Tucanos in December 2006. A month later, the strike planes began attacking FARC jungle camps. A year later, the A-29 would make international headlines.
Raul Reyes, born Luis Edgar Devia Silva, was a prominent spokesperson for the FARC, one of the chief organizers of its cocaine trade and the number two man in the group’s seven-person ruling secretariat.
Observers sympathetic to the FARC praised Reyes for being heavily involved in peace talks with the Colombian government. Critics alleged that he was instrumental in increasing the importance of extortion and cocaine trafficking in FARC territory, and that he ordered numerous kidnappings, assassinations and the bombing of a night club.
In February 2008, the FBI and DEA assisted the Colombian government in tracing a satellite phone call made by Reyes to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in which they discussed the release of hostages. The Colombian government had initially accepted Chavez’s attempts to mediate with the FARC, but withdrew its support in 2007.
Reyes’ location was traced to an encampment near the village of Santa Rosa de Yanamaru, a mile across Colombia’s southern border in neighboring Ecuador — the government of which had earlier denied reports of Reyes’ presence.
On the evening of Feb. 29, 2008, Reyes and his fellow guerrillas of the 48th Front were hosting five students from Mexico whom they had met at a socialist congress in Quito, Ecuador. As they gathered in the camp, the Colombian government prepared to attack.
At half past midnight on March 1, five Super Tucanos and three A-37 Dragonfly aircraft struck the encampment with 500-pound Mark 82 bombs upgraded with Paveway II laser-guided targeting systems.
Several guerrillas survived the initial bombardment and returned fire, possibly at an incoming force of Colombian troops arriving by helicopter, killing one. A second bombardment wiped out all resistance.
When the Colombian army combed through the wreckage, they found Reyes dead — by some accounts he had stepped on one of his own defensive mines in a panic. The soldiers discovered the bodies of 19 other FARC fighters and four Mexican students. They also recovered laptop computers with data suggesting that Ecuadorean and Venezuelan officials had cooperated with the FARC.
Later, Ecuadorean troops arriving on the scene found three survivors — one student and two FARC fighters, all badly injured.
Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa was furious over the incursion, describing it as a “massacre” perpetrated by laser-guided bombs. Chavez mobilized troops to the Colombian border. Fortunately, the dispute never escalated beyond a war of words. Diplomatic meetings and an apology from Colombian president Alvaro Uribe resolved the crisis a week later.
Most accounts of the attack claim that Super Tucanos dropped smart bombs during the raid. However, the Washington Post reported that attempts to mount Paveway II bombs on the Super Tucanos had been unsuccessful, because the connecting cables would have had to be drilled too close to the planes’ fuel cells.
Instead, older A-37 jets delivered the Paveway bombs, while the Tucanos dropped conventional bombs as a follow-up to the precision attacks. However, the Post reported that the Colombian aircraft did not violate Ecuador’s airspace, which seems unlikely if unguided bombs were dropped.
At some point, Colombia modified its Super Tucanos to carry Griffin laser-guided bombs, an Israeli-made add-on kit for the Mark 82 bomb. Some accounts claim the Tucano dropped Griffins on the encampment. However, this seems to contradict the Post’s account.
Regardless, sources agree that Colombian Super Tucanos primarily dropped unguided bombs during the war generally, reserving smart bombs for special targets.
The attack on Reyes was merely the first of many hits on the FARC’s leadership, the remainder of which occurred within Colombia’s borders.
In 2010, Super Tucanos lobbed 14,000 pounds of bombs in support of an operation that killed FARC commander Mono Jojoy south of Bogota, based on detailed information provided by an informant. Jojoy was FARC’s top military strategist.
The Colombian government accused him of forcibly recruiting child soldiers, and killing or kidnapping civilian officials who refused his orders to resign from their posts in FARC territory. A helicopter-borne assault involving more than a thousand soldiers followed the bombardment.
Jojoy died in the air attack.
The following year, five Super Tucanos joined A-37s on a mission to eliminate the top leader of the FARC, Alfonso Cano, at his encampment in Cauca. This time their target managed to flee a surprise bombardment involving both conventional and precision bombs.
Colombian troops swept the area after the attack and shot Cano down with rifle bullets.
Although the FARC lost four of its top leaders in four years (Cano’s predecessor, Manuel Marulanda, died of natural causes), its roots went too deep to immediately collapse. Therefore, the Tucanos remained busy in a steady campaign of strikes on one FARC jungle camp after another.
Other types of aircraft participated in the campaign as well. Besides the venerable A-37 Dragonfly, Israeli-made Kfir jet fighters took part in raids. AC-47T Spooky gunships — World War II-era transports equipped with modern sensors and side-mounted machine guns — helped identify targets under the jungle canopy and provided fire support.
In March 2012, nine Tucanos dropped 40 smart bombs on a 27th Front encampment near Vista Hermosa, killing 36, including the Front’s newly-appointed commander. The helicopter-borne troops who swept the area found five survivors, three of them wounded.
Four months later, a Super Tucano crashed during a combat mission over Cauca. The FARC claimed to have shot it down with a .50-caliber machine gun. The Colombian military maintained the crash was an accident and that the wreck did not show any signs of having been hit by anti-aircraft fire.
In September 2012, the commanders of three more FARC fronts — the 7th, 33rd and 37th Fronts — were all killed in separate air attacks. That November, the FARC initiated a new peace process in Havana and began a series of temporary, unilateral cease fires interspersed with renewed waves of attacks and kidnappings.
The Colombian military, however, sustained its strikes until late in the negotiation process. By 2013, it had killed 42 FARC commanders in the span of three years, almost three times the number during the preceding decade.
The loss of Front commanders sparked mass desertions. FARC fighters confessed to journalists that their chief fear was an air strike killing them in their sleep. The fighters who stayed remained constantly on the move. FARC base camps became more temporary, and thus more primitive and uncomfortable.
When the FARC agreed to lay down its arms in August, the rebel group’s numbers had fallen to between 6,000 and 7,000 fighters — still formidable, but only a third of its peak strength.
The Super Tucano appears to have played an important role in reducing much of the FARC’s military power and territorial influence, and helped encourage its surviving leaders to negotiate for an end to the conflict — though the Tucano did not achieve these successes single-handedly.
The Tucano strikes occurred in concert with improved electronic intelligence gathering and air assault forces mounted on Black Hawk helicopters — provided by the United States through the controversial Plan Colombia initiative begun in 1998.
Precision air strikes targeting insurgent leaders is a strategy typically associated with the United States and Israel. As Colombia’s experience demonstrates, it requires effective intelligence and access to munitions and aircraft that are high-tech — but not necessarily high-cost.
Flying over Afghanistan
The U.S. military wanted to buy Super Tucanos for the Afghan air force all the way back in 2011. In March 2016, the planes flew their first fixed-wing attack missions in Afghan service.
What took so long? Basically, plane manufacturer Beechcraft — attempting to promote its own AT-6 Texan II — repeatedly contested the selection of the Tucano, alleging an unfair process and arguing that the Pentagon should buy American.
The entire selection process was scratched and restarted, resulting in the A-29 being selected again in 2013. The Afghan air force had to go without combat planes for two years because of the contract dispute.
After the Pentagon buys the planes, it sends them to the U.S. Air Force’s 81st Training Squadron at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, where Afghan trainees learn how to fly. After each batch of trainees complete their lessons, they return to Afghanistan along with a plane — the last of which will arrive in 2018.
The first four Afghan Tucanos entered action in April, though details of their operations are scarce other than reports of two to four strikes per week. Another four Tucanos were expected to be operational by July. None have employed precision-guided weapons so far, according to the most recent reports.
But even when dropping unguided bombs, the Super Tucanos represent a significant enhancement of the Afghan military’s ability to provide close air support.
The new aircraft can reach hot spots in half the time it would take Kabul’s Hind attack helicopters, are less likely to be hit by anti-aircraft fire, and can loiter at length over the battlefield.
Curiously enough, this is not the first time Tucanos have attacked the Taliban. Iran at one point operated 25 EMB-312 Tucanos, and turned them against both the Taliban and drug smugglers on the Afghan border.
Coming to a war near you
Super Tucanos are not just flocking to Afghanistan — they’re quite popular in Africa, too, owing to their low cost and durability.
Mauritania acquired EMB-312s and two Super Tucanos between 2011 and 2012, and has employed them in air strikes targeting Al Qaeda insurgents.
Angola, which flew EMB-312 Tucanos in the last years of its long war with Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA rebels, has acquired six Super Tucanos which could see action against local insurgents. Ghana, Mozambique, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Mali are either operating the aircraft or are negotiating purchases.
The most significant likely purchaser would be Nigeria, which is currently sending Alpha Jets — trainers that can serve as light strike fighters — to pound Boko Haram insurgents. However, these are older aircraft lacking modern avionics and support for precision-guided munitions.
The Nigerian air force is eager to acquire 12 Super Tucanos from the United States to take up the counter-insurgency role.
However, the Nigerian military’s awful human rights record has been a major obstacle. A law known as the Leahy amendment prevents the sale of weapons to military units that commit human rights abuses.
Allegations listed by Human Rights Watch and in Amnesty International’s devastating report on the Nigerian military appear largely to stem from the conduct of ground forces — including arbitrary arrests, torture and mass shootings of prisoners — rather than from the air force, although there have been civilian casualties as a result of aerial bombing.
There have been some reforms under Nigeria’s president Muhammudu Buhari, elected in 2015, and the Obama administration seems readier to cooperate militarily with the new government.
For this reason, the Nigerian military is optimistic that the Super Tucano sale will be approved. The sale still faces opposition from opponents who pointed out in a New York Times editorial that human rights reforms have not gone very far. However, Nigeria could still purchase Super Tucanos directly from Brazil, though without certain benefits that come from U.S. assistance.
Regardless, the aircraft will soon be flying near a number of global hotspots. Lebanon is set to receive six Super Tucanos, along with 2,000 precision-guided missiles to arm them, all paid for by Saudi Arabia.
The Philippines will purchase a similar number as it rebuilds its air arm. Both Mali and Iraq will likely receive A-29s. Even Libya has expressed interest in the plane, though it seems unlikely to happen until the two separate Libyan governments — and air forces — reunite.
The Pentagon has entertained the idea of employing Tucanos several times in the past — once even in an anti-helicopter role. The Air Force is also determined to retire the A-10 Warthog ground attack plane, and it’s possible A-29s could take over.
The main reason — because it’s absurd to send stealth fighters to hunt insurgents armed with AK-47s in “permissive” low-threat environments. Pentagon officials have mentioned they are considering operating squadrons of low-tech aircraft such as the Tucano in the A-10’s place.
Regardless of whether the Super Tucano or similar aircraft such as the Texan II see service in the U.S. Air Force, it’s clear that the combination of slower, low-cost airplanes with modern sensors and precision weapons are in great demand, and may soon be having an impact on insurgent conflicts throughout Asia and Africa.