Special Operations: Low, Slow And Dangerous



August 7, 2009: The U.S. Navy is  developing a dedicated close air support aircraft for its SEAL commandos. The Navy has leased an EMB-314 Super Tucano aircraft, and is testing it in desert ranges in California, and at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland. It is the culmination of a yearlong project codenamed ‘Imminent Fury.’ This is an effort to provide a low cost aircraft to perform armed intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions. If proven successful, four more aircraft will be bought and sent to Afghanistan.

A two seat, single engine turbo prop, the Super Tucano seems made for the Counter Insurgency (COIN) environment, especially in built up areas where airstrikes have been criticized due to sometimes high civilian casualties. Such controversy fueled a decision not to use airstrikes near villages unless a unit was on the verge of being overrun.

The Super Tucano can fly low and slow, loitering over friendly forces, making precision strikes as needed, unlike Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) which typically cruise at medium-high altitude when utilizing their missiles.  Jets remain at a disadvantage due to their speed and time on station. Even the popular A-10 Warthog lacks the ability to loiter for hours unless refueled by tanker.

The Super Tucano offers a 1,000 kilometer radius, 5 hour endurance, 600 kilometers per hour top speed, 35,000 foot ceiling and is modified with an extensive range of electronics including the ability to tap into UAV surveillance feeds. It also can utilize rudimentary short length airfields near the battle zone to refuel and rearm in short order.

The Super Tucano carries more weapons than helicopters, but less than jets and consists of twin .50 caliber machine guns and nearly two tons of guided bombs and rockets. Infra-Red flares and Electronic Counter Measure equipment is available for use as defense against missile threats.

As thought provoking as the concept is, it is hardly new. During the Vietnam War, the propeller driven AD-1 Skyraider attack aircraft performed similar duties supporting Special Forces throughout numerous close quarter combats, often tipping the scales in favor of the heavily outnumbered ( and often surrounded) teams. Still, money for the project remains questionable. However, supporters hope transferring funds from other items will ensure a realization of the proposal.     

Since September 11, opportunities for such aircraft dedicated to small forces increased substantially. Numerous situations presented themselves in Afghanistan where reconnaissance, engagement and/or disengagement outcomes might have ended differently with a Counter Insurgency aircraft involved immediately beyond helicopter range and eliminating tanker dependent jets for heavier strikes against larger forces elsewhere. -- Mike Perry

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