Afghan A-29s Aren’t Dropping Laser-Guided Bombs or Engaging Targets at Night

After nearly two years of operations, the Afghan Air Force still can't make anywhere near the most of their light attack planes.

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The U.S. military routinely touts the successes the Afghan Air Force has had with its A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft. But after nearly two years of operations, Afghan pilots still can't drop laser guided bombs or fight at night and it’s unclear when that will change.

Despite repeated reports suggesting otherwise, Afghan Air Force A-29s have yet to employ any precision guided munitions during combat missions. In an Email to The War Zone, the NATO-led advisory mission in the country, known as the Resolute Support Mission, also confirmed that it had only recently begun training crews to use weapons of any kind at night. In December 2017, Afghan pilots dropped their first live 250-pound class GBU-58/B laser guided bombs on a training range in Afghanistan. Defense contractor Raytheon specifically began selling this smaller, lighter member of the Paveway bomb family in 2011 as a way for air forces to try and reduce collateral damage, but has also pitched it as an ideal weapon for light attack aircraft.

“Until now, U.S. advisors have focused the training of the A-29 pilots on visual deliveries as part of a continuous progression that will incorporate precision guided munitions and night weapons delivery,” U.S. Air Force Major Nicholas Plante, the chief public affairs officer for Resolute Support’s Train, Advise, Assist Command-Air (TAAC-Air), told The War Zone. “The ability of the Afghan Air Force to deliver precision guided munitions in a training environment, like the GBU-58, will add increased capability when it’s eventually employed in combat.”

The thing is, official descriptions and media reports of Afghanistan's A-29 have routinely highlighted their ability to employ precision guided munitions, and by extension their ability to conduct night time intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions using an on board sensor turret with electro-optical and infrared cameras, since the first four touched down in the country in January 2016. That Afghanistan’s planes may technically be able to perform these missions if crews had the right training might not necessarily be the case, either.

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Afghan Air Force personnel practice assembling and loading laser-guided bombs onto the A-29 with an inert weapon. They have not employed this capability in combat.

“The A-29 can employ laser-guided bombs,” the Pentagon wrote in its December 2017 “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan” report, the second of two such reviews it published every year. “But employment training is delayed due to technical issues with front seat targeting and aircraft performance limitations.”

TAAC-Air said it could not speak directly to the content of the Department of Defense report. At the time of writing, the Pentagon public affairs office had not yet responded to queries for additional information about these issues. The Sierra Nevada Corporation, which supplied the aircraft for Afghanistan in cooperation with Brazilian plane maker Embraer, had not responded to a request for comment.

Based on the available information, and specifically the comment about “front seat targeting,” the “technical issues” might be a matter of making sure the pilot can properly set the weapons before releasing them or view the feed from the A-29’s sensor turret. Troops on the ground could in some cases be able to mark targets with hand-held laser designators to help mitigate these problems, but still that isn't even happening.

The “aircraft performance limitations” could have been related to range, maneuverability, or altitude restrictions when carrying larger laser-guided weapons, such as the 500-pound class GBU-12/B laser-guided bomb. This seems like a remote possibility given that the Super Tucanos have reportedly had no trouble flying missions with unguided weapons in the same weight class.

Below is a video of a Beechcraft AT-6 light attack aircraft, similar to the A-29, dropping a GBU-58/B during a test:

At present, Afghan Air Force A-29s employ 250-pound class Mk 81 and 500-pound class Mk 82 iron bombs, unguided 70mm rockets, and the aircraft’s two wing-mounted .50 caliber machine guns. The Pentagon and the Resolute Support Mission both insist the lack of a precision munitions capability has had little to no impact on the Afghan Air Force’s Super Tucano operations in the meantime.

Between June and November 2017, Afghan Air Force’s 12 A-29s flew almost 900 missions, with less than 330 of them involved air-to-ground attacks, or just under two every day on average, according to the Pentagon. The aircraft flew 152 airstrikes in total in 2016. Between January and November 2017, U.S. military aircraft flew more than 1,100 close air support missions and more than 4,000 sorties overall.

“The A-29 employs unguided munitions through its onboard targeting computer that aids the pilots in accurate visual weapons delivery from all altitudes using tactics refined through repetition during their training with advisors both in the United States and in Afghanistan,” Major Plante explained. In addition, Afghan Tactical Air Coordinators “increase attack effectiveness and precision by providing target guidance and talk-ons to pilots during execution of a mission. Their role is significant in effective targeting, decreasing collateral damage, and is a critical piece of the integration of airpower to support ground maneuver units.”

It's true that the low- and slow-flying A-29s would have a better chance of identifying their targets and engaging them with unguided weapons than higher and faster-flying combat aircraft. The Super Tucanos would be perfectly able to attack large, static targets, such as enemy-occupied structures, too. The Pentagon was quick to highlight the aircraft’s role in strikes against Taliban narcotics production centers in November 2017.

“They've got the A-29, which has been very successful and continues to build into a very viable platform,” U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Lance Bunch, Director of Future Operations for the Resolute Support Mission, told reporters in December 2017. “The first strikes as part of this air interdiction campaign were conducted by the Afghan Air Force, where we worked with them to deliver targets that they then went and struck to start that entire campaign.”

But no matter how accurate the pilots are with dumb bombs, that is no substitute for a guided munitions capability, which was one of main reasons for getting these aircraft to the Afghan Air Force in the first place. It is impossible to believe that the inability to employ those weapons has not limited the aircraft operational effectiveness, especially when it comes to attacking moving targets or providing close air support to friendly troops who may be very close to enemy forces or innocent bystanders. 

This would be especially likely to occur during fighting in built up urban areas, something that has hardly been out of the ordinary in Afghanistan. When U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited the country in September 2017, the Taliban launched a bold attack on Hamid Karzai International Airport in the capital Kabul. Coalition warplanes flew close air support for Afghan troops who responded on the ground, but inadvertently caused a number of civilian casualties when one of their missiles malfunctioned and went flying into a nearby residential area.

Using dumb bombs and unguided rockets can only increase the risk of collateral damage in any situation, which is an important consideration in a conflict where even mistake can be a major propaganda victory for the enemy. It's a major reason why the U.S. military has almost exclusively relied on precision guided munitions for airstrikes against militants in both Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria. We at The War Zone have similarly questioned the wisdom of the U.S. military employing iron bombs for so-called "terrain denial" missions in Afghanistan.

"Precision weapons has changed the way we fight and we're not going back," Secretary of the U.S. Air Force Heather Wilson said during a speech in September 2017. "The world will not tolerate imprecise weapons."

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A member of the Afghan Air Force loads an unguided bomb onto an A-29.

And the inability to employ weapons or even patrol at night is a significant issue, too. Insurgents and terrorists in Afghanistan have long used the cover of darkness to conceal their movements and launch surprise attacks on government security forces.

Persistent aerial surveillance and the ability to conduct both precise close air support and strike missions at night have been and continue to be essential parts of the U.S.-led campaign to keep the Taliban at bay. Earlier in December 2017, the U.S. military released footage of just such a mission that took out the leader of the Taliban's elite "Red Unit" in Helmand province.

These are key capabilities the Afghan military will need in order to be able to do so on its own, especially given that militant groups groups have been steadily improving their ability to conduct operations after the sun goes down. You can read about that in more detail in a previous piece I wrote about the changing nature of night fighting in the country.

Persistent problems with finding qualified pilots, sensor operators, and ground crew personnel can’t have helped matters, either. As of November 2017, the Afghan Air Force had 14 qualified crews for its dozen A-29s, 30 percent below the authorized force level.

“The lack of qualified candidates with the necessary technical skills to complete training presents a challenge,” the Pentagon acknowledged in its biannual report in December 2017. “Finding suitable candidates with English skills remains difficult.”

That there are simply not be enough individuals available to routinely have two-man crews flying A-29s might help explain why problems setting up a “front seat targeting” capability was an issue to begin with. It also suggests that there is a lack of qualified sensor operators. Maybe most telling is that photographic evidence does not generally show Afghan Air Force Super Tucanos flying with their ventral sensor turrets at all.

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One of the A-29s the Afghan Air Force uses for at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia with the sensor turret.

There is evidence that there have been significant issues in training individual to operate and maintain these systems on other aircraft, as well. The separate Special Mission Wing (SMW), part of the Afghan Special Security Forces, the country’s much-touted and well-funded special operations community, has a fleet of PC-12NG intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft, similar to the U.S. Air Force’s U-28A aircraft, which do have a electro-optical and infrared sensor turret on board.

“The PC-12 can send full-motion video (FMV) to a ground station and the onboard crew can perform real-time analysis of collected data,” the Pentagon reported in December 2017. “Despite these capabilities, SMW personnel require training to improve the integration of intelligence into combat operations.”

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A rare, but low quality image of one of the Afghan Special Mission Wing's PC-12NG aircraft.

The Afghan Air Force still relies heavily on contractors to keep the A-29s operational in general. As of November 2017, private firms were providing 60 percent of the required maintenance for the aircraft, something the Pentagon expected to continue for the foreseeable future.

“Because A-29 programs [sic] are still in the early stages of a rapid operational fielding, aircraft maintenance capabilities remain a challenge,” the Pentagon’s December 2017 report said of a program that began in 2014. You can read all about the saga of getting the Super Tucanos to Afghanistan here.

The aircraft have been in country for two years flying missions, so calling this the "early stages of a rapid fielding" seems a bit farcical. These problems are hardly limited to specific aircraft types and we at The War Zone have also repeatedly documented similar manpower and logistical issues throughout Afghanistan's rotary wing aircraft fleets.

None of this is to say that A-29s aren’t an important addition to the Afghan Air Force. The aircraft give the service more flexibility and increased capability, all at greater ranges and speed than with its armed helicopters

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An Afghan Air Force MD 530F light attack helicopter.

In addition to the dozen A-29s in country, there are another seven situated at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia in the United States to train new pilots. By 2019, the U.S. military hopes to have facilitated the delivery of a full force of 25 A-29s for the Afghans.

But there are clearly significant challenges to ensuring the Afghans can take full advantage of the aircraft they have already. The U.S. military-backed plan to overhaul the Afghan Air Force could further increase the strain on existing training and logistics pipelines.

Starting in 2018, the U.S. military plans to begin assisting with the delivery of AC-208 Combat Cavarans with sensor turrets and the ability to employ laser-guided 70mm rockets. These single engine aircraft are already in service with the Iraqi and Lebanese air forces, both of which use them as platforms to fire Hellfire missiles, which could be another option for the Afghan examples later on.

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An unarmed Afghan Air Force C-208 Grand Caravan.

The Afghan Air Force expects to take delivery of three of the planes in 2018 and have a full fleet of 32 in service by 2023. It might be easier for the Afghan Air Force to absorb these aircraft because it is already flying unarmed C-208s in a variety of support roles and has developed a certain proficiency at maintaining them. There would still be questions about how well the service would be able to maintain the AC-208’s sensors and other mission systems without outside support, at least in the near term, though.

At their best, these aircraft can't match the full capabilities of the A-29, though. Adding them to the mix might suggest the United States is concerned that the Afghans may not be able to fully make use of the Super Tucanos any time soon. This begs the question about whether the aircraft, which have a price tag of approximately $18 million each, a cost the United States has largely underwritten, have been a worthwhile investment if they're still not reaching their full potential after almost two years of in-country operations.

In the meantime, the NATO-led coalition, and the U.S. military most of all, continue to fly the vast majority of airstrikes in Afghanistan, a number that has dramatically increased in 2017. This has come at great cost since multi-role fighter jets such as the F-16 Viper and B-52 heavy bomber have been the main aircraft flying over the country. Absent another alternative, until the Afghan Air Force develops a more robust capability, we can expect coalition aircraft will continue to provide this vital support for the foreseeable future.

Light attack aircraft with a functional precision guided munitions capability would be a much more cost effective tool for these missions. Unfortunately, in addition to the limited capabilities of the Afghan Air Force, the latest push to develop a U.S. military light attack aircraft force, which came to a head earlier in 2017 with a highly publicized U.S. Air Force test project, appears to have stalled out.

Some have gone so far as to suggest private military companies could help provide an immediate and lower cost capability that is more effective than what the Afghans can provide for themselves at present, and also far cheaper than having American aviators continue to fly the missions. We at The War Zone have previously discussed the ins and outs of those proposals in detail.

“The Afghan Air Force is … increasing its strike capabilities with ongoing U.S. advisor-led training,” Major Plante said. “The A-29 Super Tucano with precision guided munitions will provide the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces on the ground a vital battlefield advantage in their country.”

However, the A-29s and their more advanced capabilities are clearly still years away from making their impact felt in the fight against the Taliban, ISIS and Al Qaeda-linked terrorists, and other militant groups, if they ever do. Until this occurs, and other parts of the Afghan Air Force finally stabilize as well, the U.S. will be relied upon to fill this gap. As such, the idea that America could have ever left the country militarily before a robust Afghan air arm was firmly in place was and still remains a farce.

Update 12/22/17:

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) has responded to our queries and provided important additional information about Afghanistan's A-29s and their capabilities. The company has been involved in resolving the two specific issues the Pentagon mentioned in its report.

"The front seat targeting limitation is a reference to a sensitive slew controller for the EO/IR sensor when it is used for laser guided bomb targeting," Scott Oxarart, a Sierra Nevada communications representative said in statement. "SNC has resolved this issue and is fielding a software improvement.

"The aircraft performance limitations comment is an artifact of the current airspeed limitation of the sensor used in firing laser-guided bombs," he added. "This is not an inherent A-29 issue, rather an artifact of the sensor specified in the original USAF requirements document that we were provided. SNC and Embraer have provided additional engineering and flight test data to expand the operational airspeed envelope to address USAF concerns associated with this sensor. That data is with the USAF at this time. The limitation is not associated with the A-29 itself."  

In a separate phone call, Taco Gilbert, the Senior Vice President for SNC´s Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance division, said that Afghan A-29 crews had proven to be "very, very precise" with unguided bombs since they began flying combat missions in 2016 and that those missions had resulted in no confirmed collateral civilian casualties to date. He added that this mirrored feedback the company had received from other Super Tucano operators, including Colombia, with regards to employing dumb bombs.

It is worth noting that alleged civilian casualties from Afghan and coalition air strikes has spiked in 2017 as the total number of missions has similarly increased. A recent New York Times report also called into question the accounting of civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria, an issue that could extent to other conflict zones, as well.

In addition, in the late 2000s, the Central Intelligence Agency led an effort to give Colombia's Air Force a precision guided munition capability, specifically to enable targeted strikes against specific rebel leaders. According to The Washington Post, the country's Super Tucanos had been limited to attacking larger area targets.

Gilbert further stressed that guided weapons were not necessarily a requisite for precise air-to-ground attacks, but acknowledged that the Afghans would be even more capable with their A-29s if they gained the ability to use precision guided munitions. He noted that avoiding the need to use expensive precision guidance kits would make a light attack aircraft an more cost effective alternative to fast-moving jet combat aircraft in permissive environments, as well.  

It will be interesting to see if the Afghans continue to employ unguided bombs once they gain a more robust precision capability. We will definitely keep following the ambitious U.S.-backed plans to transform the force.