Indonesia Buys Planes With Teeth

Creative Commons photo of the Embraer Super Tucano by Piñeros Pulido Juan Mauricio.

On this fine Armistice Day, what could honor peace more thoroughly than the news that Indonesia is buying a flock of Super Tucano turboprop  counter-insurgency aircraft, the same model that the U.S. Navy considered for “irregular warfare,”  Blackwater bought in 2007 and Kansas lawmaker Sam Brownback flipped out about exactly one year today.

Why do you care?

I mean…other than because it looks like some bad-ass World War II fighter?

You probably don’t, or at least you won’t until the zombie war begins. If you think you might, stick with me, or skip past the jump and get the brain-eating payoff.

As reported in Aviation Week, Aerospace & Defense News, and other sources, the Indonesian government is buying eight of the turboprop aircraft, though some Indonesian government sources said the order may be upped to sixteen.

Indonesia is the first buyer of the aircraft in East Asia or the South(east) Pacific, though if you consider Lebanon to be in Asia (have fistfights in the hall, please), they already bought the first Asian Super Tucanos for delivery in 2013.

The Super Tucanos will replace Indonesia’s fleet of North American Rockwell OV-10 Broncos, also a turboprop plane suited for the light attack and reconaissance (LARR) role, and by extension by counter-insurgency (the Super Tucano’s most-mentioned specialties). It’s also frequently used as a trainer.

Manufactured by Brazil’s Embraer Defense System, the Super Tucanos run for $10 million a pop and have integrated FN HErstal 12.7 mm machine guns in its wings, as opposed to some competing platforms which fit their guns into external pods. Most light attack airplane pilots tend to prefer integral machine guns; they’re said to be hugely  easier to hit things with. Pods seem to work fine for rockets and bombs, but machine guns hit things more often when fired from integral wing mounts rather than pods.

Creative Commons by Photo by Kobus Savonije.

Turboprop planes like the Super Tucano aren’t “outdated” in the military theater by any stretch of the imagination. Besides the fact that chicks dig ’em, do you have any freakin’ idea how much it costs to fuel a jet? Lots more than it costs to fuel a propeller plane. In these days of tight budgets, jets seem so 1996 for most applications. Compared to small close support jet like the Super Tucano’s aging de facto competition, the Cessna A-37 Dragonfly, a Super Tucano is a bargain to fly.

The tactical differences are even more important. A Super Tucano is fast for a propeller plane, but it operates at lower speeds than any jet . The jet-powered Cessna Dragonfly cruises at 425 knots, or almost 500 miles an hour. The cruise speed of the Super Tucano is about 270 miles an hour or about 235 knots.

Which would you rather be flying when you try to find and machine-gun someone with an RPG hiding behind a mangrove smoking a fat Cuban cigar and growling “Say hello to my little friend!”

Turboprops require less training to fly, less runway (or flight deck) to land on and — most important of all — you can paint teeth on them. You can probably even paint naked ladies on them if you’re in the Colombian Air Force.

Embraer A-29 Super Tucano of the Colombian Air Force. Photo by NeoReich. No...seriously. NeoReich. Scared, yet?

Super Tucanos currently fly with the air forces of Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Chile, and of course — LOL! — Colombia, which used them inside Ecuadoran airspace in 2008 in an operation against FARC guerrillas. Guatemala and El Salvador ordered some recently.

Peru is considering a major purchase as of earlier this year, and, perhaps most importantly, the nation of Brazil has signed a defense pact with the United States that allows the acquisition of up to 200 Super Tucanos by the American military, according to Wikipedia and Obviously, Uncle Sam is not buying a fleet of ’em yet — Sam Brownback would cry if they did, though Embraer has discussed opening a Florida plant if the US places an order. The U.S. Navy did buy one Super Tucano already for evaluation — and, incidentally, the US Navy already operates many similar light attack aircraft, so in tactical terms their courting of Embraer is not big news.

One of the reasons the Super Tucano has been said to be an inferior trainer is that it was really designed as a combat aircraft; it is heavy and a bit harder to learn to fly in than the earlier and lighter Tucano, on which it is based, or than other planes in the same class that are more adapted for use as trainers but may be considered inferior for combat by some analysts.

For combat, the Super Tucano’s a toothy little bugger, featuring hardpoints for Sidewinder, Piranha or Python air-to-air missiles, plus bombs and cannon pods, etc. etc. etc.

Okay, so…why do you care again?

Like I said: You don’t, probably, but here’s why you would if you did.

One of the interesting things about modern air power is that while jet fighters and interceptors have remained reasonably important in strategic terms, turboprops have become more important as combat aircraft — or, more accurately, they’ve always remained important but for a long time they got less press because F-16s are cooler.

As nations experience a massive shift of military planning away from the mammoth clash of nations and into antiterrorism operations, drug and piracy interdiction, the coming zombie apocalypse and/or the revolt of the masses against an increasingly entrenched and intractable power structure that views them as tasty morsels to be enjoyed with a fine Chianti — oh, and while the legacy of the cold war and breakneck international small-arms proliferation — more and more of the world’s headline-grabbing warfare occurs not at 30,000 feet but at nut-kicking range.

This is the century where military operations become de facto criminal enforcement; cops become the military, and the military are cops. National security becomes investigation and interdiction. Driven by MiGs, tanks, artilery and the mass movement of troops, a clash between Russia and Georgia lasts days. A clash between the U.S. and Iraq lasts ten years or more.

And a war in Afghanistan lasts from 1979 until…when it doesn’t.

Planes like the Super Tucano will become vastly more important in the next 50 years. These are slower, lower-flying close-support aircraft designed to engage small, hard-to-spot targets on the ground as well as civilian craft converted to criminal, insurgent and other paramilitary uses.

Currently, Embraer’s largest client for the Super Tucano is, predictably enough, the Brazillian Air Force, with about 70 in service of 99 to be delivered. But it’s been making inroads all over Latin America (Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador) and is considered by defense analysts as one of the aircraft to watch.

That’s because defense industry analysts know what Clive Owen knew by the end of The International.

No, I don’t mean that the Guggenheim is a bad place to have a gunfight with eleventy-seven hit men with machine pistols — yes, he did figure that out. But in this case that’s not what I mean. I mean, simply, this:

Warfare in the 21st century will be fought not with ICBMs; it’ll be fought with AK-47s, M-4s, shotguns, trucks, machetes, fertilizer bombs and — most importantly — with the deadliest weapons of all: dollars, Euros, Brazilian reals, pesos, Swiss Francs, Indonesian rupiahs, Colo dolos. When those counter-insurgency operations begin, it won’t be about national borders or even national or ethnic identity. It’ll be about bad press, human trafficking, and heroin smuggling.

Also, if you’d like one of your own, apparently you can catch a deal; whether the Brazillians really cut Blackwater founder Erik Prince a deal and gave him his Blackwater Super Tucano for the bargain price of $4.7 million — maybe because he’s a nice Catholic boy? — I couldn’t even begin to guess. But as a nice Catholic boy, personally I’ll be spending my first $4.7 million on indulgences.

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