Warplanes: January 1, 2004

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Many reports have come out of Afghanistan on the efforts to rebuild the national army. But nothing has been heard about rebuilding the Afghan air force. That's because there is a struggle going on in the Pentagon between U.S. Air Force officers who want a "proper air force" with jet fighters (the U.S. has a lot of low mileage, slightly used, F-16s available). 

But others protested that this would take too long and that what the Afghans really needed was a bunch of smaller, slower aircraft that could double as trainers. There are quite a few aircraft like this available, and they are used by many third world countries for border patrol and counter-insurgency. It's easier to train pilots to use them, cheaper to buy them and much less cheaper to operate them. It costs $2,000 per flying hour to operate an F-16, but less than half that for trainer/light attack types.

These "trainer/light attack aircraft" can also operate from crude airports, or even a stretch of highway. Aircraft like this can carry system 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 are several problems with these aircraft. First, none of these aircraft are made in the United States, so Congress will not be happy about U.S. tax dollars buying non-American warplanes. Second, the U.S. Air Force has no experience with these aircraft. Finally, the air force doesn't want something like this to succeed in Afghanistan and raise questions about U.S. Air Force tactics and buying decisions. 

So far, this battle is a stalemate, and the Afghans are left with no air force of their own. But the Afghans could just decide to go form one on their own. For example, Brazil manufactures the Super Tucano, a single engine turbo-prop trainer/attack aircraft that is used over a dozen nations. This aircraft carries two .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 ($5 million each, versus over $20 million each for used F-16s.) Afghanistan already has hundreds of pilots who would quickly learn how to handle the Super Tucano. This aircraft could be easily equipped to carry a dozen of the new 250 pound GPS smart bombs (or half a dozen dumb 500 pound bombs), giving it considerable firepower. The Super Tucano already comes equipped with a GPS guidance system. Max altitude is 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 take off weight of 3.5 tons. 

Another proposal is to use a "combat crop duster," originally built at the behest of the U.S. State Department to spray drug crops in nations that produce lots of illegal crops. This aircraft, the Turbo-Thrush S2R-T65/5400 NEDS (Narcotics Eradication Delivery System), has armor for the two man crew, can stay in the air for seven hours, a cruising speed of 272 kilometers an hour and a max altitude of 25,000 feet. The five ton aircraft normally carries about two tons of crop dusting chemicals. The manufacturer modified one for combat use, calling it the AYRES V-1-A Vigilante, simply by equipping it with hardware compatible with military bomb racks. The V-1-A can carry two tons of bombs, machine-gun pods, sensors or whatever. No fancy cockpit or ejection seat, but very maneuverable and over 2,500 of the original crop duster version in use world wide. Each ones costs less than two million dollars. 

While an Afghan Air Force officer could understand the usefulness of the V-1-A or Super Tucano, U.S. Air Force officers cannot. This has been the case since the Vietnam war, when pragmatic air force officers got some prop-driven light bombers into action and demonstrated their obvious superiority over jets in counterinsurgency warfare. While the troops loved this kind of air support, the guys who ran the U.S. Air Force did not, and still don't. 

 


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