Paraguay looks to modernize its fighter planes to face new threats

The Ministry of National Defense and the Air Force High Command have been conducting studies and drafting plans to acquire new fighter jets at the end of 2015.
Kaiser David Konrad, in Asunción | 31 October 2014

Due to budget reasons, the Paraguayan Air Force’s AT-26 Xavante planes were grounded and were eventually traded with Brazil for three Super Tucanos. [Photo: Kaiser Konrad]

Silvio Pettirossi International Airport bears the name of the pioneer and patron of aviation in Paraguay. Its entrance is located off one of the main roads in Asunción, called “Aviadores del Chaco,” in memory of the brave pilots who fought in the war against Bolivia and entered the continent’s military history by conducting the first night bombing mission and engaging in the first aerial combat in the Americas.

As is true of many countries, historical aviation events are a source of national pride in Paraguay. The area by the airport at Ñu Guasu (Guarani for “large field”) Air Base is home to, among other things, the First Brigade of the Paraguayan Air Force (FAP), which include the combat unit Aero Tactical Group (GAT), the only fighter plane unit in the country.

GAT is divided into three squadrons: the First Fighter Squadron “Guaraní,” which operated AT-26 Xavante planes; the Second Fighter Squadron “Indios,” which operated AT-33 planes; and the Reconnaissance and Attack Squadron “Moros,” currently designed the Third Fighter Squadron, which operates AT-27 Tucano planes. It is the unit’s only squadron that is currently active and is considered an elite force.

For budget reasons, the AT-26 Xavante planes were grounded and eventually were given to Brazil in exchange for three Tucanos. Economic difficulties worsened the FAP’s circumstances, and the political priorities of recent governments were focused on other areas – which were no less important – which forced fighter planes to be limited to their Constitutional mission of defending the country’s airspace.

In the last few years, Paraguay has seen the rise of the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP), a paramilitary and proto-guerilla force that has been terrorizing citizens with kidnappings and attacks.

Inspired by the Cuban guerrillas and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the group is of concern to security agencies and is a challenge to the Armed Forces. In addition, there is the continuing use of the nation’s air space as a flight corridor for illegal trafficking operations, especially for smuggling drugs. Brazil’s “Abatement Act” and Argentina’s increased policing of its airspace along its borders have caused drug traffickers from Brazil, Argentina or Bolívia to choose to fly their planes over Paraguay.

All of these factors are worrisome to the country’s government. According to information provided by Paraguayan authorities, President Horacio Cartes – who has a professional background in aeronautics – has recognized the need to modernize the Air Force, especially combat planes, in order to ensure that they are capable of fulfilling their Constitutional mission.

The problems that Paraguay is facing not only represent a threat to national security, but also are directly reflected in its domestic security. Therefore, the Ministry of National Defense and the Air Force High Command have been conducting studies and drafting plans to acquire new fighter jets at the end of next year.

At least US$270 million will be budgeted for this purpose. As soon as this was decided, the FAP received offers of EMB-314 Super Tucanos from Brazilian companies; T-6 Texan IIs from the United States; L-159 Alcas from South Korea; and YAK-130s from Russia.

While Paraguay currently has the weakest air force in the region in material terms, the same cannot be said of it in terms of human talent. The FAP has a team of courageous and highly-motivated pilots, many of them trained at foreign air force academies. Several are graduates of the Brazilian Air Force Academy in Pirassununga (SP), and others had the opportunity to take the FAB fighter pilot in Natal.

The FAP has also been analyzing proposals from Brazilian companies with a view towards modernizing its AT-27 fleet, a process which would involve changing wings, reinforcing landing gear, and installing a modern glass cockpit, thereby increasing the useful life of the airplanes by at least fifteen years. This would make the Tucano a modern training plane for crews of the FAP’s first line of airplanes, allowing the air force to integrate a broader range of weapons – including intelligence devices – and turning them into an effective and economical platform for executing close up air support missions, or as a platform for counterinsurgency efforts and for policing airspace along the borders.

The agency responsible for controlling and monitoring the nation’s airspace is called CIVA (Comprehensive Air Monitoring Center). The process of modernization requires that over the next year, the air force obtain at least two of the four planned three-dimensional, long-range radars, capable of covering the country’s entire territory. Today, there is still a deficiency in this area, with several regions without radar coverage, a situation that has been exploited by drug traffickers who are able to fly there without being detected.

Recently, CIVA has received two field radars that are able to detect targets at a distance of 104 km, at an altitude of up to 25 meters. One of them was installed at the same air base to support military organization operations, while the other was mounted on a truck adapted as a command station and mobile monitoring unit. This radar is frequently sent to the borders to conduct surveillance activities and to track targets, in addition to supporting operations outside the headquarters of the Third Fighter Squadron.

Even without the circumstances being ideal to fulfill its Constitutional mission as fully as necessary, the Paraguayan Air Force is continually preparing its aviators for a future that, who knows, may not be that far away, when it will be equipped to the highest level of the country’s strategic ambitions, recognizing its importance for maintaining regional security, protecting the nation’s borders, keeping the peace and ensuring the national sovereignty of the skies over Paraguay.

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