More Fun With Counter-Insurgency Aircraft

From the Flickr stream of the President of Ecuador. SRSLY!!!!!

Note — See corrections at the end.

A much-lauded warplane deal between the Brazilian aviation firm of Embraer and the nation of El Salvador has been placed on hold because of El Salvador’s “pressing needs in other areas.” Meanwhile, Embraer (which already builds civilian planes in one Florida city) may start building military aircraft at another Florida facility.

In their ongoing quest to secure a US government relationship for their Super Tucano turboprop aircraft, Embraer is partnering with American firm Sierra Nevada to compete for a contract to build 20 trainers and counter-insurgency planes for Afghan pilots at the behest of the American military, as well as 15 craft for the US Air Force to use in the same capacity.

First, El Salvador: The Brazilian Super Tucano is a turboprop plane designed for low-level, low-speed anti-insurgency and ground support missions. The El Salvadoran government was due to buy 8-10 of the planes, which were intended to assist El Salvador’s mounting commitments to fight drug trafficking on the borders, target illegal drug crops, and maintain security around prisons, as well as (to translate roughly), “help with security on the streets.” Creepy, much?

Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes said that El Salvador will not finalize the deal for now, because it needs to commit those funds to health, education and housing. To obtain the planes and further bolster its defense budget, El Salvador would reportedly have to obtain a foreign credit line.

Guatemala already uses the Super Tucano for applications just such as those initially proposed by the Salvadoran government. In fact, all across Central and South America, the counter-insurgency and drug interdiction purposes of planes like the Super Tucano are becoming more and more important. In the new world, where every dollar counts, the far lower operating costs of airplanes over helicopters (and the much smaller amount of training needed to fly a plane vs. a helicopter) means planes like this will be absolutely critical in future military conflicts, especially in the developing world.

What should be taken away from the fact that El Salvador is putting on hold its plan to upgrade its air force? I dunno…you tell me. But I’ll lay odds that with what’s happening in Mexico, any drug interdiction duties abdicated by the Salvadorans seem likely to turn up the heat on the smuggling routes north. The same way rampant Afghan opium production destabilizes Pakistan, and the drug war in Colombia pushed much of those trafficking activities into other nearby nations.

Meanwhile, back in the States…

Embraer, which focuses on both civilian and military planes, has been courting the U.S. military for some time, and has is U.S. headquarters in Fort Lauderdale. The South Florida Business Journal reported yesterday that Embraer is making further inroads into the state, having already set up a manufacturing facility for executive jets in Melbourne, Florida, and moving toward building a factory for Super Tucanos in Gainesville, in the far north of the state.  (Also the state capital).

That will add 50 jobs to the company’s Florida workforce. But more importantly in geopolitical terms, it can only be a move to secure a U.S. military deal for the attack plane.

Addressing the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce’s 2011 Economic Summit, Florida businessman Manuel A. Mencia described the strong growth Brazil is experiencing, and its connections to Florida: “I call Brazil ‘Florida’s China’…I think that’s the potential Brazil has for Florida.”

Why should you care? Well, the thing about Brazil is that it’s the initial letter in the acronym, “BRIC,” as in the “BRIC countries,” the nations of Brazil, Russia, India and China, which are ascendant in economic and military terms, and guaranteed to challenge what’s left of American global economic hegemony this century.

But what’s just as important about Brazil in global terms is that it has the world’s first sustainable biofuels economy, producing 37% of the world’s ethanol intended for fuel use, which it distills from sugar cane. Its strategic military and economic dependence on unstable regions like the Persian Gulf and the Caucasus must be hugely ameliorated by this fact.

Though the U.S. still produces more fuel-ethanol than Brazil, but Brazil has a much smaller economy — $2.2 trillion GDP with a 190 million population, vs. the United States’s 14 trillion GDP with a 308 million population, not to mention Brazil has better swimsuits.

Last and far from least: the main competitor for Embraer in the Super Tucano’s category is Lockheed-Martin, which is already flight-testing the super-bad-ass (and super-spendy) F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, and plans to up the number of flight tests this year.

Public Domain U.S. Gov't Image of an Iraqi Air Force Lockheed T-6.

Lockheed’s ground-support and counter-insurgency plane is the AT-6, a repurposed version of the American-built T-6 that’s already used as a trainer by the armed forces of Greece, Canada, the U.S. and more. In fact, here’s a photo of an Iraqi Air Force T-6 trainer, isn’t that dandy?

The Super Tucano, the AT-6 and similar aircraft show an underlying similarity in the planes designed as trainers and those designed for low-speed, low-level surveillance, counter-insurgency and close ground support. Both types of planes need to be relatively simple to fly, thus cutting down on training hours, to be relatively cheap to operate compared to jets (which cost A BUTTLOAD, partially because it takes so long to learn to fly one).

These planes don’t need to go Mach 1.1 or engage a MIG; they need to bomb a heroin lab, torch a pot field or drop napalm on a training camp. They’re much more in tune with how most “wars” (and crypto-wars) are being fought these days. Helicopters can do a lot more than turboprop airplanes, but it takes a hell of a long time to learn to fly a helicopter. Helicopters are also far pricier to fly, though in both training time and cost of operation they’re far less expensive than jets.

The problem is that the AT-6 is not a purpose-built warplane; it’s a trainer with weapons strapped on. Generally, an aircraft with weapons systems added on after-the-fact, as with many civilian helicopters adopted for military use, uses a pod system — which means the weapons don’t necessarily interface as smoothly as if the plane was built for them.

True to that expectation, pilots who have flown both have mentioned the more organic feel of the Super Tucano, since the weapons systems were incorporated into the design from the get-go.

But the absolute most important thing favoring Embraer? Their promotional videos are the creepiest:

The short version? may call Embraer the underdog in the competition for the U.S. and Afghan contracts, but I wouldn’t count on it. And given that most of this century’s wars are likely to be fought in mountain passes, jungles and bombed-out cities, Embraer’s inroads into the U.S. military market may turn out to be be hugely significant.

Update/Corrections: A commenter points out that Embraer is not yet building civilian planes in Melbourne — they are building the facility. In the end, the jets will merely be assembled there, not manufactured, which is a way to create the illusion of something being manufactured in the U.S. when in fact it’s manufactured elsewhere.

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2 comments on “More Fun With Counter-Insurgency Aircraft
  1. A couple of points: last I checked, Gainesville wasn’t the capital of Florida, but rather Tallahassee.

    And (more importantly), Melbourne isn’t building Embraer biz jets yet, and maybe never will. It’s role is as a “final assembly” facility, where major components manufactured elsewhere are assembled, and then all the customer-specific finishes (painting, interior, etc.) are installed. As Californians, we know all about this: McDonnell Douglas did the same trick with China for the MD-82 airliner back in 1985, and Airbus has just started delivering aircraft off an assembly line in China. In the whole scheme of things, such tactics are insignificant: it lets the buyer think they are getting something with significant local content, but the content is the least important variety: effectively skilled manual labor. Design and management remains firmly with the originating country.

  2. Malc — Thanks for the correction, I don’t know why I thought Gainesville was Florida’s capital. Obviously a brain fart on my part.

    And thanks also for the clarification on the Melbourne facility, and also on the final assembly vs. actual manufacturing — I should have mentioned that. Appreciated.

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