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Providing the powerful alternative for close air support (Studio)

17th February 2022 - 12:00 GMT | by Studio

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As European militaries look to the future of close air support (CAS) for ground forces, light attack aircraft could prove a low-cost, versatile option, according to industry experts.

Brought to you in partnership with Embraer

While the Covid-19 pandemic has taken a toll on national budgets, CAS missions remain a high priority. Aircraft provide essential support for land forces through aerial firepower and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

Fourth and fifth-generation fighter aircraft can prosecute these missions to significant effect. However, light attack aircraft such as the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano can be a powerful alternative, particularly in such missions as border patrols or low-intensity conflicts like counter insurgencies.

These types of operations can endure for years, strengthening the budgetary and logistics case for relatively low-cost aircraft that demand far less fuel than their costly alternatives. What’s more, the aircraft can double as ideal training platforms, further boosting their versatility.

There could be significant European demand for such aircraft over the next decade, according to Ilker Aktaşoğlu, Shephard Defence Insight manager.

European nations are expected to spend about $3.5 billion on light attack and trainer aircraft over the next decade, he said, with around $500 million already allocated.

‘This really suggests there are more potential programmes than ongoing projects in the region,’ Aktaşoğlu said.

Budget will be vital in defining this spending, Aktaşoğlu noted, with militaries balancing operational demands with their allocated funds, a particular challenge in the wake of the pandemic.

Outlining the potential European market for low-cost, multi-mission options over the next five to ten years, Aktaşoğlu pointed to a range of countries including Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine.

So what does a modern CAS aircraft need to provide? Jeremiah Gertler is a senior associate with the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a US-based think tank. He sees many core qualities for such platforms.

First is persistence: the ability to be where it needs to be when it needs to be there – and to stay there.

‘A good part of close air support is coordinating closely with those troops,’ he said. ‘And if they need you, and you run off to refuel, that’s not very helpful.’

Second is connectivity: the capacity to communicate with the people they are supporting, ‘so that you know where they are and you know what they need from you at any given moment’.

Gertler also highlighted the cost of operation. ‘If it’s a lower-cost aircraft, you can have more platforms supporting more troops at the same time.’

Gertler also emphasised the importance of survivability, with more and more sophisticated weapons aimed at the sky.

This gives turboprop aircraft an advantage over platforms like helicopters, for instance. ‘There’s less that you can hit that will automatically cause an injury to the aircraft that would remove it from the battlefield.’

Gary Kling served in the US Marine Corps for almost 30 years in various roles, including commanding officer of Training Air Wing Five. His primary occupational speciality was piloting F-18s in CAS of marines, while he now conducts a range of consulting work and is a US government contractor in CAS, flying an EMB 312 Tucano.

For Kling, light attack aircraft provide significant capability in the right environment, ‘and that right environment means relatively low threat’.

He notes that such aircraft will not fly in the same threat environment as an F-18, an F-35 or an F-22. However, ‘there are many [US] partner countries in South America, Africa, and Asia that will fly these’ because the threat environment allows for success.

‘Counterinsurgencies aren’t going away,’ Kling said. ‘Low threat, close air support is not going away.’

By making the best use of low-cost, multirole aircraft, operators can experience benefits across their fleets, said Alberto Gomide, Senior Manager for Product Strategy at Embraer.

Not only can such platforms lower operational costs, but they also allow modern air forces to preserve their fourth or fifth-generation fighters for when they are most needed.

‘You save your major assets, your frontline fighters, and you do these missions with lower operational costs,’ Gomide said.

Pointing to operational examples, Gomide said the A-29 had proved a significant asset in securing borders and countering insurgencies in Colombia and Brazil. ‘It has really changed the game,’ he said.

Gomide underlined the aircraft’s versatility, noting that platforms like the A-29 provide a single option that can be used across different roles, including armed reconnaissance, light attack and training.

‘You can have the same solution, the same maintenance and the same training, but change [the mission] from one day to another.’

While the Tucano has enjoyed considerable success in South America, until very recently, there was little interest from European air forces, said Simon Johns, Embraer Vice President – Business Development & Sales, Europe & North Africa.

That’s begun to change, with the company fielding many inquiries from countries in the continent looking at the aircraft as an advanced trainer, a weapons platform and a surveillance asset.

Johns said that range of air forces recognise that NATO or EU operations in the future are likely to involve persistent and endemic campaigns, where they face a wide range of tasks.

Militaries must ‘strike a balance between investing in the right type of quality and quantity of equipment to deal with the threats they may face’, he said.

‘There have been a number of inquiries, not just from military air forces, but from ministry of interior organisations who operate air assets in air policing roles or other similar operations,’ Johns explained.

Embraer has focused on ensuring the Super Tucano is adaptable and capable of integrating much of the same equipment as the most advanced fighters, Johns said, including a wide range of weapons systems, sensors, communication systems and defensive aid suites.

Not only does this enhance its capabilities, but it ensures its effectiveness as an advanced trainer.

‘The gap between sitting in a Gen Five cockpit and a Super Tucano cockpit is negligible,’ Johns argued.

It all comes down to that combination of relatively low costs and high-level technological capability. This combination means an air force can retain its advanced fighters – including future sixth-gen platforms – for when they’re really needed.

‘It’s entirely suited to the protracted nature of conflicts we’re experiencing today, allowing air forces to retain control over their capital assets,’ he said.

Certain ISR and light attack roles could be seen as more prosaic, but ‘they’re no less important’, Johns added.

‘This aircraft is specifically designed to undertake those types of operations.’

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