Located in the state of Georgia, Moody Air Force Base has been home to the 23rd Wing of the U.S. Air Force (USAF) Air Combat Command since 2006. Three main units are based there. The 23rd Fighter Group brings together two squadrons and the largest fleet of A-10C Thunderbolt II in the USAF, with more than 90 pilots serving as a stand-by unit capable of being deployed to any part of the world on short notice. The 347th Rescue Group, comprising three squadrons—one equipped with HC-130P Combat King aircraft, another with HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters, and Guardian Angel, the oldest USAF unit, which is devoted exclusively to combat search-and-rescue (CSAR) missions. In 2015, the U.S. government selected Moody Air Force Base to receive the 81st Fighter Squadron (81st FS). The base would serve as the headquarters for the Light Aircraft Support (LAS) program and the new A-29 Super Tucano, a light turboprop attack and training plane.
81st Fighter Squadron
The activities begin early at Moody Air Force Base. Gathered in the auditorium of the 81st FS, Afghan Air Force pilots train with experienced USAF fighter pilots. One morning, the objective was to identify from aerial images the exact location of a target, which troops on the ground had failed to detect. It would be no easy task. The target was in an urban area and seen from above, buildings all looked very much the same. The exercise was akin to finding a needle in a haystack, but pilots completing ground-attack missions have to be able to identify their target. The lives of their colleagues, who are under enemy fire on the ground, depend on immediate close air support. For these pilots, avoiding collateral damage and knowing how to choose the correct weapon, while using it with the most precision, are of the utmost importance. Troops calling for air support as well as civilians who live in the area are fellow citizens or allied forces whose protection must be assured.
The 81st FS was established January 15th, 1942 and took part in World War II. In 1988, upon receiving F-16 Fighting Falcon planes, it became the first USAF unit to use two different aircraft in the same combat element. Known as “the Panthers,” the 81st FS was the first USAF combat unit to receive the powerful and versatile A-29 Super Tucano counterinsurgency aircraft for a training program. The U.S. government selected the aircraft for its LAS program. Initially, the goal was to provide 20 aircraft to the Afghan Air Force.
Among the requirements of the LAS program the aircraft had to be light, reliable, and highly resilient—a complete and authentic combat platform, but with a substantially lower operating cost than the fighters in service. Such an aircraft needed to be capable of carrying out intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions; performing attacks using a wide array of conventional and intelligent weapons; operating in treacherous terrain and in extreme conditions; and being able to fight and win in low intensity and counterinsurgency combat settings.
Training Afghan pilots
The daily routine at Moody consists of classroom study, flight simulator activities, and at least 10 sorties per day. Each pilot does a sortie in the morning and another in the afternoon. Generally, six months are needed for a pilot to make the shift from one aircraft to another. With the Super Tucano, however, making that shift is quite easy, as just 19 sorties suffice. The A-29 avionics are very similar to those of the F-16. The panel has big, colored, multifunctional displays with a very user-friendly system, allowing pilot and copilot to access information from various sensors. USAF is learning a lot with this aircraft and all of its capacities.
“Training consists of repeating tasks in order to meet the standard of expected performance,” said Colonel João Alexandro Vilela, a reservist fighter pilot with the Brazilian Air Force. “So, as a trainer plane, the Super Tucano turboprop allows the fighter training tasks to be operationalized at a lower cost. Additionally, its sophisticated cockpit creates a technological environment that hones the pilot’s judgment capacity and decision-making process, in real time, together with the motor coordination skills demanded by 4th generation fighter cockpits. With regard to conditions in the operational situation, as a light attack plane, it allows for the accurate and efficient use of its weapons system.”
The LAS program will train 30 Afghan fighter pilots and will deliver 20 A-29 planes—most have already been delivered to Afghanistan. “The students are from diverse backgrounds, but they are the best from their places of origin,” stated U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Ryan Hill, commander of the 81st FS. “Some of them received initial training in the T-6 here in the U.S., while others trained in Afghanistan. Many of our students have prior experience in the Cessna 208, flying CASEVAC [casualty evacuation] and transport missions all over Afghanistan.”
At least 17 USAF instructors,—most with combat experience from the A-10, F-16, and F-15E squadrons—are assisting with training the Afghan pilots. The training phase includes formation flying, low-altitude navigation, tactical maneuvers, and attack modes using various types of weapons, with a focus on close-air support missions. While at Moody, students use training munitions, including BDU-33 bombs, rockets with dummy warheads, and non-incendiary 12.7 mm machine gun ammunition. Back in Afghanistan, pilots will go to a firing range near Kabul to train on live fire before using their skills in combat.
The Super Tucano in combat
The first four Super Tucanos arrived in Afghanistan in early January 2016 at the Hamid Karzai International Airport, their base of operations, in the Afghan capital of Kabul. Their first combat sortie came soon after. On January 15th, three night air raids were carried out in the Khostak Valley in the northeastern province of Badakhshan. Since then, Afghan fighters have carried out two to four missions per week. Throughout 2016, the aircraft flew 320 combat sorties and used their weapons in 138 of them. The Super Tucano has bolstered the Afghan government’s strategic air power and strengthened the country’s rekindled air force. The aircraft has a longer range and greater response and firepower capacity than other weapons systems.
Due to its flexibility, low cost, and accuracy, the A-29 has been tasked with carrying out two of the main attack modes in the Afghan theater. Close-Air Support is carried out when a forward air controller in a convoy or patrol under direct attack or ambush calls in and coordinates immediate fire over an enemy close to their own position—the controller is in charge of the strike. Close-Combat Attack is similar with a caveat. Pilots called to provide close-air support carry out a deliberate attack against the target using weapons of their choice. They are in charge of the strike and responsible for its consequences. The A-29 has been used to attack preselected targets, vehicles, and training camps, and to kill insurgent or terrorist leaders, as was done successfully in Colombia.
Another important duty is convoy escort. These planes have shown to be more efficient than armed or actual attack helicopters. In this case, planes do route reconnaissance within a radius of 4 to 6 miles to maintain the convoy in visual sight at 25 to 30 degrees, in the position of the left wing machine gun. In the event that contact with the vehicles is lost, the pilot must fly low over them to be seen. To always think like the enemy is critical. If the convoy is attacked or ambushed, the A-29 must raise the force level by showing its presence. The objective is to make the enemy abandon hostile intentions. Therefore, the aircraft needs to be seen and heard.
“The pilots have been quite successful. They work in direct coordination with the ground forces, and they’ve managed to have extreme precision in their use of arms against enemy forces,” Lt. Col. Hill said.
Afghanistan has 407 districts, of which 133 are disputed and 41 are under Taliban control, which has resulted in an enormous amount of work for the country’s security forces. To make matters worse, the Islamic State has advanced into that region. As a result the Super Tucano has been called on more. The aircraft can respond to a convoy attack three times faster than a helicopter, and carry a larger amount and variety of precision or saturation weapons, a decisive factor.
“The Super Tucano was the right choice for Afghanistan,” Lt. Col. Hill said. “The pilots we train here in the 81st FS have achieved immediate battlefield success. This aircraft has performed well in a hostile environment, providing a reliable and efficient weapons platform for Afghan service members. It was a wonderful opportunity for us to train the Afghans on this platform and help them build their combat air force. Also, as we learn more about how the Super Tucano can be used, we have the opportunity to exchange knowledge with Brazilians and Colombians. Those relationships are important to us, and provide some optimal ideas and techniques. We plan to maintain those relationships in the future,” he concluded.