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WWII Tech. Giving F-35 Run for Its Money

By: MotherBoard.vice.com

On December 5, 2001, an American B-52 flying tens of thousands of feet above the ground mistakenly dropped a 2,000-pound satellite-guided bomb on an Army Special Forces team in Afghanistan. The aircrew had been fed the wrong coordinates, but had the plane been flying as low and slow as older generations of attack planes did, the crew might’ve realized their error simply by looking down at the ground.

It was not long after the Twin Towers fell, and American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan by an American bomb dropped by an American plane. That this mistake happened illustrates just how poorly the air campaign in the United States’ longest war was executed, and how efforts ultimately failed to make things better by going after high-tech solutions that aren’t what they’re cracked up to be compared to the old tried and true technology.

That bomber was on a 30-plus hour round trip flight from the remote island of Diego Garcia, 900 miles south of India. The plane those Green Berets really needed, the low-and-slow flying A-10 Warthog, wasn’t available yet in Afghanistan. Famously rugged and even more famously lethal, the Warthog was the first American jet to actually land at the decrepit Bagram Airfield. Soon after the runway was repaired, many dozens of F-15, F-16, and F/A-18 fighter jets—wholly different creatures—came streaming in.

According to former Defense Department official Pierre Sprey, the US Air Force could have left those other jets out, had they sent three full squadrons of A-10s—72 planes total—to Afghanistan instead. But Sprey says the Air Force “never had more than 12 Warthogs in-country at any given time during the entire war.”

“The A-10 is the best ‘close attack’ plane ever made, period,” Sprey tells me. “But the Air Force hates that mission. They’ll do anything they can to kill that plane.” He says retiring the iconic A-10, a twin-engine attack jet with 30-mm cannons that hit with 14 times the kinetic energy of the 20-mm guns mounted on America’s current fleet of supersonic fighters, became an article of faith among high ranking Air Force officers, generations of whom had been raised to believe in the redemptive power of technological innovation.

They wanted something with more punch. More lethality. They soon found a plane built for exactly this purpose.

That mentality drove production of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the world’s first $1 trillion weapons system. Development of the F-35 was going on in the background throughout the Afghan War despite mountains of evidence that the stealthy jet would never be able to attack ground targets like the A-10 could. Far away from the fighting, the generals in Washington, DC supported the F-35 because they believed “more technology is always better.”

This same thinking drove the push for armed drones over Afghanistan too. But no matter their technological wizardry, remote-piloted hunter-killer aircraft like the Predator and Reaper were arguably even worse at helping ground troops than even the highest-tech manned jets.

So if the A-10 was never going to be around in enough numbers, what could be done? Only one group had enough distance from the Air Force and enough independent money to consider a viable alternative: buying a cheap, lightweight attack plane on their own. That was the Navy SEALs. A group of them met with the Secretary of the Navy in 2006 to tell him about the problems they faced with getting good enough air support.

Like other American combat troops in Afghanistan, the SEALs sometimes found that high-tech gear couldn’t reliably get the job done, or that cheaper, lower-tech solutions worked better. This is how the US military almost adopted the A-29 Super Tucano, a $4 million turboprop airplane reminiscent of WWII-era designs that troops wanted, commanders said was “urgently needed,” but Congress refused to buy.

RISE OF THE SUPER TUCANO

The Super Tucano was a throwback to a bygone era of aerial combat—a time when pilots looked through the blur of a propeller and pointed their nose at the enemy before pulling the trigger. A time before auto-pilot, guided missiles, and infrared gun “pods.” The A-29 was fast enough to get to a fight quickly and light enough to stay there in a low, slow orbit overhead the battle.

Philosophically, the Super Tucano occupies a sort of middle ground between the United States’ two main gunships. As a plane, the A-29 could reach altitudes over the Hindu Kush higher than the AH-64 Apache helicopter, and remain overhead for hours before refueling like the legendary AC-130 Spectre gunships.

But the Spectre only flew at night. By day, Super Tucano’s tight turning radius and low stall speed meant pilots could maintain constant visual contact with ground forces and instantly shift from surveillance and reconnaissance to attack. And after dark, an A-29 could use night vision and thermal sensors as sophisticated as those on any fighter jet.

“It’s a great plane,” says recently retired Air Force Lt. Col. Shamsher Mann, an F-16 pilot who has flown A-29s. “Pilots love it. It handles beautifully, sips gas, and can go anywhere. If you want to get into the fight and mix it up with the guys on the ground, the Super T is a great platform.”

Another former fighter pilot tells me that the Super Tucano provided the “low-end” air-to-ground attack capability the United States simply never had in Afghanistan—a capability the Pentagon’s F-35 could never hope to replicate.

Soon after 9/11, the pilot said, Army Special Forces famously rode horses into the Hindu Kush, but carried laptop computers and sophisticated targeting and communications gear with them as well. “Super Tucano is almost a mirror image of that in the air,” he said. “The low-tech combined with the high-tech.”

Now, five years after Congress killed the A-29 program, with the US Air Force considering a lower-tech replacement for the Warthog, the sad story of the Super Tucano feels more relevant than ever.

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