The A-29 Super Tucano aircraft have finally begun arriving in Afghanistan and were expected to start flying ground attack missions for the struggling Afghan Air Force (AAF) in April, U.S. military spokesmen said Tuesday.
Four of the turboprop planes made by the Brazilian firm Embraer and its U.S. partner, the Sierra Nevada Corp., landed at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul last Friday.
The four were the first of 20 Super Tucanos to be delivered under a $427 million contract to provide the AAF with its first fixed-wing ground attack capability. Four more were expected to arrive in the spring, four more in 2017 and the remaining eight by the end of 2018.
"We wish we had started earlier" with the A-29 program, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in Afghanistan last month. However, Beechcraft initially challenged the award of the Light Air Support (LAS) contract to Embraer and there were additional delays in setting up the training of Afghan pilots and ground crews with the 81st Fighter Squadron at Moody Air Force base near Valdosta Ga.
Nine Afghan pilots graduated from the training program at Moody on Dec. 18. Two Afghans who had been in the program as maintenance workers went missing just before the graduation. One of the two reportedly was picked up by the Department of Homeland Security in Virginia last week and a search was continuing for the second.
The A-29s have a top speed of about 370 mph and carry internally-mounted .50 caliber machine guns in each wing. The five hard points on the aircraft can carry about 3,000 lbs. of munitions, including laser-guided bombs.
The arrival of the A-29s will give the Afghans "a significant increase in their capability to provide their own close air support. Those aircraft should start going into service roughly in the April timeframe," said Army Brig. Gen. Wilson A. Shoffner, deputy chief of staff for communications for the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan.
Shoffner said the Afghans also are increasingly relying on their MD-530 helicopters for reconnaissance and fire support. The MD-530, similar to the U.S. Little Bird helicopter, can be armed with either machine guns or rockets and the Afghans have had "increasing success in employing the MD-530s. They've used it with great effect over the fall," Shoffner said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com