Airpower is central to any counterinsurgency campaign. This is nowhere more evident than in Afghanistan with its combination of difficult geography, a lack of infrastructure, dispersed population and uncontrolled borders. Carrier-based F/A-18s as well as B-1, B-2 and B-52 strategic bombers played a critical role in the initial defeat of the Taliban. Over the ensuing decade, the NATO coalition and, in particular, the United States deployed nearly the full array of its air platforms including C-17 and C-5 transports, refueling tankers, P-3 anti-submarine warfare planes, EA-6B Prowler and EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft and the Predator and Reaper drones. Airpower provides valuable and, often, real-time ISR and force security, rapid mobility, timely strike and on-call firepower, distributed logistics and critical medical evacuation. Properly managed, airpower serves as a counterweight to the insurgent’s natural advantages.
As the coalition planned for an eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan with responsibility for that country’s security transferred to Afghan security forces, it was clear that part of that task involved helping to create an Afghan Air Force (AAF). Such an air force had to reflect the human, fiscal and operational realities of Afghanistan. This meant providing the AAF with assets that were rugged, reliable, effective, easy to maintain and relatively cheap.
To that end, the U.S. Air Force initiated a competition for a Light Air Support (LAS) aircraft that could perform both a tactical ISR and strike function. Because of the urgency of the need, the short timeline before the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the need to constrain costs, prospective bidders were required to use a non-developmental aircraft. After a year-long competition and evaluation a contract was awarded in December 2011. However, a combination of a protest by the losing contender, dueling lawsuits and a review by the Air Force resulted in the initial contract being voided and a new competition being initiated (which was between the same two bidders). The unfortunate result of these events was to set back the timeline for creating an effective and well-equipped AAF by more than a year.
Yesterday, the Air Force announced that Sierra Nevada Corporation, teamed with Embraer, won the contract for at least 20 LAS. Embraer will supply its proven A-29 Super Tucano aircraft (but these will be built in the U.S.) and Sierra Nevada will provide mission equipment and perform the integration. The sturdy, propeller-driven Super Tucano is a perfect fit to the Afghan environment. It will carry advanced electro-optical sensors, modern avionics, a laser target designator and a wide variety of precision munitions. In addition, the team will provide training devices, mission planning stations, mission debrief systems, long lead spares, Afghanistan base activation, site surveys and flight certification support.
There is no question that the Sierra Nevada-led team, with its long experience in building, outfitting and deploying advanced light tactical aircraft, can meet the timeline for fielding the LAS. The real challenge now is the ability of the U.S. Air Force to trains its AAF counterpart amidst the quickening pace of a U.S. withdrawal from that country or, in the worst case, after December 2014.
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