Super Tucano : Game Changer or Pilot Killer?

Trainer aircrafts with secondary light attack capabilities provide the Nigerian Air Force a cheaper, more cost-effective way of dealing with low-end threats, and free up its more advanced fighters to deal with more serious adversaries…except in this case there are no advanced fighters to deal with serious threats in the NAF inventory. Sending a slower, more lightly armored, or even the incoming propeller-driven Super Tucano plane into battle, even in relatively permissive environments could put pilots at risk of being shot down or even killed.

For years, the Air Force has used fighters such as the Dassault Donnier Alpha jet and Aero L-29 Albatros trainers to wage war against Boko Haram and other militant groups in Nigeria. But even with none of those groups having any semblance of an air force, and with limited air defense capability at best, the Air Force has still at times sent its fastest and most advanced fighter, the F-7Ni fighter up against targets that are way below their weight class.

Tensions on the disputed Lake Chad basin are higher than its been in decades since the Chadian incursion of 83, due in most part to the receding Lake, and growing evidence about Covert operations against the Nigerian state stoking concern that Nigeria could be on the verge of another territorial dispute after the loss of Bakassi to Cameroon.

And with Nigeria nervous about the expanding militarization of West Africa, once Nigeria’s sphere of influence, the Air Force might soon find itself needing to send more aircraft to deter illegal and unauthorized foreign incursion on Nigerian territory. God forbid things go awry, the Air Force is going to need as many reconnaissance and air defence aircraft as possible to operate in what will then be highly contested environments.

So, if the Air Force adds the JF-17 Multi-role fighter and Super Tucano aircraft to its inventory it could have the flexibility to respond to those emergencies with its most advanced aircraft without leaving the air campaign against the Boko guys unattended to by.

Super Tucano

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Embrae A-29 Super Tucano

Buying such an “off-the-shelf” airplane would provide a low-cost way to strike violent extremist groups, without the high costs of maintaining and operating the Chengdu F-7Ni Airguard fighter, a high-speed interceptor whose primary role is to provide air defense for Nigeria’s airspace. A light attack aircraft could conceivably “free up higher cost, higher performance F-7Ni fighter from doing low-threat missions, which would allow Nigeria time to prepare for more complex threats with those assets rather than stress and needlessly puts it at risk.

Adding a light attack capability to the Air Force’s suite of weapons systems makes sense for other reasons as well. The Super Tucano in the inventory, especially with their low flight costs, would mean more cockpits that could be used to keep pilots current, allowing them to more quickly transition over to more advanced aircraft if necessary.

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Aero L-29 trainer/ light attack

The Super Tucano could also take on some of the close-air support missions that Nigeria’s limited (now 7 jets available for combat) now perform at much higher cost. The Super Tucano typically costs $1,000 per hour to fly. That’s less than 1/20th what it costs to fly a Mach 2 high-speed interceptor.

However, idea of the NAF operating these piston driven airplanes as the nation’s frontline fighters is strange. I don’t think there’s any other air force that has, or would consider platforms like the Super Tucano as frontline asset. Countries that currently operates or intends to operate this aircraft do so as a specialised platform strictly for COIN operations and already have several or at least a dedicated platform of fighters for air superiority or air to air roles.

It will be an unmitigated disaster for Nigeria if it use the Super Tucano for air to air or air to ground roles against an enemy with an air force or anti-aircraft systems. It’s low, it’s slow and vulnerable, and the air defense environment has become a lot more sophisticated. They fly lower and slower than third or fourth-gen fighters.

The SU-25 and MIG-29 or even MiG-21 fighters in service with the air forces of most poor African countries have maximum airspeeds of at least close to Mach 1 and flight ceilings of 65,000 feet and above 50,00 feet. Heck even the Alpha jet has a top speed of 968 km/h or almost Mach 1 and has a service ceiling of 48,000 feet.

The Super Tucano, on the other hand, has a maximum airspeed of 366 miles per hour, and a ceiling of 35,000 feet.

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NAF F-7Ni fighter during combat operations in Nigeria’s northeast.

But having the aircraft to provide close-air support and counterinsurgency support would also mean less wear and tear on the nation’s only Air Defence aircraft, the F-7Ni fighter. This would free up those aircraft so pilots could spend more time training for combat in high-threat situations rather than risking all on low intensity operations or doing air shows. Most air forces have dedicated platforms for air shows and will never use capital aircraft for aerobatics.

But herein lies the danger, given Nigeria’s predisposition for complacency and its ” buy it when we need it ” way of doing things, the need for the acquisition of frontline tactical fighters will be abandoned if the Super Tucano ordered is delivered before the arrival of any JF’17. This will see Nigeria responding to external threats with every asset it has. In such a scenario the limitations of the $600 million light attack aircraft makes it too risky to fly, even in more permissive environments such as the northeast.

Rather than expend $600 million on 12 Super Tucano aircraft, the SU-25, with a unit price of $11 million will give Nigeria a squadron of SU-25 Frogfoot fighter for less than $200 million and have it delivered much sooner than 2021. Not only is it cheaper, it’s better suited for close air support missions as well. Its one thing for the SU-25 to fly low and slow, since it’s built like a titanium bathtub and is jam-packed with ordnance.

But if the pilot of a lightly armored Super Tucano found himself targeted by insurgents wielding MANPADS, a man-portable air defense system, or other weaponry, possibly even small-arms fire, 12.7mm DShK heavy machine guns, or rocket-propelled grenades used extensively by even Boko Haram, the poor pilot and possibly father of kids could be in trouble without the ability to even eject to safety.

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Nigerian F-7N pilot.

That looks like a recipe to get the poor pilot killed. The Super Tucano doesn’t have the power to get the hell away. It’s not like it chooses to go at a couple hundred knots and then accelerate to Mach 2, it just can’t. Granted every occupation has its risks, but the potential risk to pilots in light attack aircraft would be alarming.

In 2015, an Alpha jet pilot was captured by Boko Haram after being shot down and later beheaded. I’ve seen ISIS do worse in Syria, burning captured pilots alive. The Super Tucano light attack aircraft is intended for particular environments and missions and should not represent Nigeria’s primary attack aircraft acquisition with less emphases of acquiring combat aircraft with air to air and ground capabilities.

The Super Tucano should be based on the mission that its needed for. No rational thinking person will put a light attack aircraft in the same environment that you would put an F-7Ni or JF-17 fighter, or even, potentially the Alpha jet, whose near Mach 1 speed gives it a greater chance of fleeing or escaping enemy fire. The lives of young Nigerian pilots who volunteer to serve should not in any way be compromised.

The cost savings from operating the Super Tucano solely is not worth the added risk to pilots. Nigeria must have different systems for different kinds of missions. We’re not talking just about economics, we’re talking about lives. What higher percentage of casualties is Nigeria willing to accept as a result of refusing to acquire high performance fighter jets and stubbornly continuing spending hundreds if millions of dollars acquiring and using these low and slow planes?

There are many pundits who claim that the Air Force doesn’t have the budget and resources to absorb 4th gen aircraft. But the service has for years struggled to close its aircraft shortfall by improvisation. Playing economics has come with devastating consequences. Soldiers killed because NAF is unable to provide critical CAS because there are simply not enough planes. This has hampered its readiness, and has driven the service to neat extinction.

Yet the service deems it fit to deplete the nation’s treasury by close to a billion dollars to buy 12 slow lightly protected aircraft. If you look at the pluses and minuses in this very bizarre acquisition to be delivered 2020, which could drag into 2023, I come up with the answer of, this is not worth the investment. It’s not worth the time, and the money that the Air Force does not have right now to spend on turbo prop aircraft to be used against an enemy that will be defeated on the ground.

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