Is the Super Tucano a Practical Option for the RAF?


It seems the idea of the RAF adopting some sort of cheap turboprop attack aircraft won’t go away.

In a recent speech the Chief of the General Staff, Sir David Richards, suggested that the UK should be concentrating on troop numbers at the expense of fast jets such as the Typhoon, not because of any inherent superiority of a turboprop but because they are cheaper and good enough against a low tech insurgent force like the Taleban.

Discussing equipment can be said to be rather premature because equipment plans fall from the pages of a strategic review and that strategic review is not due until later this year. When it reports on the place the UK sees itself in the world, what types of conflict we might expect to be involved in and other factors, equipment plans will hopefully form a key part of it.

That said, equipment is vital to the execution of a strategy so discussions on types and quantities is interesting and no less vital than other aspects, even in the absence of this strategic and operational context.

General Richards’s speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies was very interesting and the general thrust of his argument will certainly find many nodding in agreement, his central proposal to reshape the armed forces for the future rather than yesterday is one of the themes of our Future Defence Review series. There is an obvious need for more infantry, engineers, helicopters, UAV’s and intelligence staff. In a world of finite resources, something has to give, equipment like main battle tanks, high-end frigates and fighter jets whilst undoubtedly technological marvels are pant wettingly expensive!

It is this expense that distorts the equipment plan so that whilst we may be able to have aircraft carriers soldiers facing the enemy can’t have adequate helicopter lift or night sights.

Although it is a tired old cliché, hard choices do indeed have to be made.

General Richards makes the point that the UK should not dispense with all its high-end warfighting capabilities but rather rebalance in favour of the ‘war among the people’ types of conflict that are likely to be more prevalent in the future.

What he actually said was

I am emphatically not advocating getting rid of all such equipment, one can buy a lot of UAVs or Tucano aircraft for the cost of a few JSF and heavy tanks.

Despite this thoughtful and intelligent assessment most of the mainstream media concentrated the cyber army and Tucano aircraft.

Putting two and two together and coming up with an aardvark, the Guardian, Telegraph, Times and other mainstream media went to town and printed the usual raft of frothing nonsense that has come to characterise defence journalism in this country. It mainly involved having an ill-informed go at the Typhoon and parading the Super Tucano as the great white hope, the saviour of the armed forces.

Wikipedia derived costs, facts and figures liberally sprinkled through what was, frankly, embarrassing reporting from our mainstream media.

Tom Coghlan in the Times extrapolates what General Richards said and reports

General Richards, Chief of the General Staff, believes that the Super Tucano offers a cost-effective alternative to fast jets such as the Cold War-era Eurofighter Typhoon in counter-insurgency operations such as those in Afghanistan. Resembling something from the Second World War, a Super Tucano costs about £5 million, a fraction of the £60 million estimated cost of the F35 Joint Strike Fighter ordered for the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers or the £67 million of a Typhoon.

Calling the Typhoon a Cold War-era aircraft is an interesting way to describe a superlative swing-role aircraft that isn’t even fully in service, especially as the first version of the Tucano flew in 1980.

Simon Jenkins in the Guardian steps even further into the nonsensical with devastatingly accurate and insightful comments like;

The same is true of the air force. Jet fighters are toys for boys, a hangover from the Battle of Britain

As bombers, their inaccuracy makes them counter-productive rather than counter-insurgent, and they are swiftly being replaced by cheaper drones

In our previous suggestions, we have suggested cancelling CVF and JCA, using the funds to expand in other areas and we have also looked at the utility of turboprop aircraft for operations in Afghanistan but it is worth another look as it is topical and some of the wildly inaccurate reporting needs correcting.

In looking at its utility of turboprop combat aircraft the first thing to do is look at what missions are currently being carried out in Helmand by fast jets such as the Tornado, latterly the Harrier and maybe in the future the Typhoon. Some of these missions are obvious but some less so.

Providing close air support (CAS) to troops in contact is carried out in conjunction with on the ground controllers and at their disposal will be a range of effects; a low and fast show of force, air-delivered cannon fire, guided bombs, missiles and rockets (Apache attack helicopters and fast jet) or indirect fire from 81mm mortars, 105mm light guns and GMLRS guided rockets. They match the desired effect to the capability and act accordingly. In a multi-national force such as ISAF these effects might be delivered by a number of nations. A patrol might not always be within the operating range of indirect fire equipment and the range of effects that can be delivered by air might be more appropriate. Aircraft also carry out a range of intelligence gathering and reconnaissance missions, planned patrols and pre-emptive strikes.

Could a Super Tucano ALX, Beechcraft AT6 or other similar aircraft take the place of a Typhoon, if for example, it were operating Afghanistan, a template for the types of conflict General Richards predicts we will be engaged in more often than not?

They are certainly cheaper to buy but are they cheaper to own and would they be a false economy.

To start this analysis the first task is to determine how much they are, as we have blogged many many times before, determining the actual purchase price of any item of military equipment from open-source information is an almost impossible task. Quoted figures are often out of date, subject to exchange rate fluctuation and usually do not include all those ‘optional extras’ like an initial logistics and spares facility, training equipment, contractorised support arrangements and country-specific equipment like defensive aids or radios.

Only rough estimates can be presented.

The industrial benefits are usually conveniently dismissed, when equipment is designed and made in the UK the value of income tax, corporation tax, VAT and other revenue for the government is considerable. Typhoon not only supports BAe and Rolls Royce but a significant supply chain as well, these organisations pay corporation tax, national insurance, buy photocopiers, make telephone calls and lots of other economic activity.

Of course, these industrial benefits generally come out of the MoD budget and go straight back into the wider government pot but if we are to truly look at cost comparisons then this factor should be at least noted.

Technology spin-offs and export sales also contribute to a wider economic benefit of the indigenous purchase.

However, in this comparison, I will deliberately not include these and look at the straight-out costs to the MoD.

The average estimate for a Typhoon is £70million which in most cases seems to be a high one, similarly, the oft-quoted price for a Super Tucano is £5million, which from recent evidence is low. All the mainstream media revel in quoting this price because it provides such a stark contrast, however, this price would certainly not include much of the equipment that comes with a Typhoon as standard, so the price would go up.

The Dominican Republic purchased 8 for approximately $93million, and Ecuador is planning to get 24 for $280. This works out at between $12 million and $15 million each, in their basic form, if we average these out the price comes in at £8.5million, somewhat off the £5m quoted in the Times. That price will be inflated even more once UK specific defensive aids and other equipment is fitted.

Defensive aids are still vital in all but the most benign airspace, the threat of man-portable anti-aircraft missiles is very real, even in Afghanistan. These would have to be fully integrated with the aircraft so the price would again, go upward.

UK equipment such as Paveway guided bombs, CRV-7 rockets, Brimstone/Hellfire and targeting pods would also need integrations, this is generally not a complicated process (should everything go to plan) but is an extra cost.

The reality of these vital but expensive extras and integration work is a unit price approaching £10million and that is without the usual MoD ‘cock up’ contingency uplift.

So the quoted exchange rate in the Times of a squadron of 16 for every single Typhoon is somewhat wide of the mark, for each Typhoon or JCA we would be able to purchase half a squadron, 7 or 8 airframes at most.

But isn’t that still great, 8 airframes to 1 seems almost too good to not consider?

It would be if a Super Tucano could do the same work as a Typhoon, it is a superficially attractive proposal, after all its an aircraft that can carry bombs and missiles much like the Typhoon.

But a more in-depth analysis shows they are not the same, in fact far from it.

A relatively slow turboprop like the Super Tucano is unlikely to be effective in the show of force role, the impact of a fast jet screaming overhead at an ultra-low altitude might seem a rather unusual mission requirement but they are used to influence and shape the battlefield where a more traditional attack might be counter-productive, in a COIN environment the loss of civilian life or destruction of property should be minimised. As time goes on, this tactic will inevitably become less effective as the enemy will get used to it, simply ignoring the aircraft but it is still a useful capability to retain.

Replacing a fast jet with a Super Tucano takes this capability away from the troops on the ground, it becomes a kinetic strike or nothing. Even if the Super Tucano was a credible show of force aircraft it would require it to be in the MANPADS and AAA threat zone for some time, exposing it to ground fires. In this application, speed means survival and effectiveness, turboprop means useless and full of bullet holes.

How about the primary role of providing close air support to troops in contact, this comes down to reaction times, sensors, communications, weapon load and endurance.

In order to provide reactive close air support, the aircraft in question has to be there in the first place, this means one has two options; a fast aircraft or lots of slower ones.

The fast jet can move from contact to contact at a high cruise or with afterburners reducing reaction times and enabling a large area to be covered with a single aircraft. Because the fast jet is so versatile, it can carry out other missions whilst still being able to provide reactive CAS. Speed does have the obvious disadvantage of fuel consumption but this is a trade-off, one cost against another. Whilst the Super Tucano can stay aloft for longer than for example a Typhoon, it cannot do so at high altitude, in hot conditions or with anywhere near its full payload. Significantly, the Super Tucano cannot be mid-air refuelled. The Times quotes 6.5 hours endurance for the Super Tucano, have a look at the Embraer website and this tumbles to 3.4 hours with internal fuel tanks and this is not at altitude, in hot conditions or with a full load.

So from this, it should be obvious that speed is vital, however, an added complication is the time it now takes to get clearance for a strike, as more restrictive rules of engagement designed to reduce civilian casualties slow the process right down, in these circumstances the low speed of a turboprop would be less of an issue, still significant though.

A Typhoon can carry approximately 7,500kg of stores across 13 hardpoints, with an internal main 27mm canon, although a hard point each would likely to be used for fuel and a targeting pod.

The Super Tucano on the other hand can carry just over 1500kg of external stores across 5 hardpoints and must carry a medium calibre canon on an external hardpoint, which would also be counted as part of its payload. The weight of a defensive aids system would also reduce the payload yet further. In order to provide a greater endurance one of these hardpoints and a considerable proportion of its payload would need to be dedicated to an external fuel tank. If one wanted a targeting pod, an external fuel tank and a canon the available hardpoints would number 3.

When a Typhoon drops or launches a weapon or two, it can do it again. The Super Tucano would have to return to base to re-arm, leaving the troops in contact without cover.

The much slower Super Tucano would need longer transit times to its area of operation and that area of operation would need to be much smaller. Forward basing is one possible means of negating this transit time disadvantage but smaller forward airbases would need greater force protection as the area needed to operate for an extended period would be large, requiring extensive IED mitigation and manpower. Distributed air operations would also split the maintenance and logistics effort, meaning more in theatre personnel and more combat logistics patrols to support them.

Operating from temporary airstrips or even road areas (although roads are in short supply in Helmand) with resupply by helicopter is an option that might be considered but there are many complications when trying to operate continuous air coverage and would mainly involve shifting costs elsewhere. The forward air basing concept is certainly worth a detailed study because it has been employed to good effect in a range of conflicts in recent times but I suspect the answer would be more expensive and impractical.

Lower speed also means that the Super Tucano would be in a threat zone for longer than a fast jet, turboprops are eminently less survivable than a fast jet. The USAF A10 was designed specifically to be faster than the likes of the Skyraider that is so often cited in these types of discussion, conveniently forgetting that the Skyraider was shot to pieces with weapons 40 years ago. On the reverse of this argument, the advent of targeting pods and ROVER terminals means that the need to operate a low altitude is greatly diminished. Using precision-guided weapons would allow the Super Tucano to operate at medium altitude, beyond the reach of most AAA.

Some commentators also point to high speed as a disadvantage in CAS, perhaps 40 years ago when weapons were manually targeted but with targeting pods, GPS/INS and laser-guided weapons, this is no longer the case.

Comparing speed and payload might be interesting from a nerdy technical specs perspective but it translates into a very real effect.

In order to provide the continuous and reactive close air support coverage that a single fast jet does one would need a significant number of Super Tucano’s to be in the air at the same time. Also, maintenance of continual coverage is punishing, maintenance requirements would mean more airframes, the Super Tucano needs much less maintenance than a Typhoon but it is still a relatively complex aircraft, especially with the systems that would allow it to operate in theatre without being a burden on operations.

So whether the ratio of Super Tucano to Typhoon would be on a ratio of 8 to 1, only a detailed study would show but the airframe cost advantage is beginning to significantly diminish and as has been shown above, a Super Tucano would be a capability loss. As a quick reminder,  we have not to take into account the tax revenue which would be lost by purchasing a Super Tucano from Brazil.

But, it doesn’t stop there.

If it is accepted that more Super Tucano’s would be required to fulfil the missions of a single typhoon, may 5 or 6, it follows that more aircrew, maintainers, maintenance facilities, spare parts, simulators, quarters, medical facilities and all the other costs of maintaining a greater number of aircraft in an overseas theatre would have to be found.

Each Super Tucano needs two aircrews compared to one for the Typhoon as well and aircrew training is a lengthy process, especially to provide close air support to troops in contact, surely one of the most mistake intolerant activities in the armed forces.

Inexorably the cost advantage is diminishing to a point where it is likely the ‘cheap’ Super Tucano actually ends up costing more.

And the final cherry on top is that the Super Tucano would be of little use in any other type of operation.

If an aircraft such as a Super Tucano were used in operations other than CAS then it becomes a much more attractive proposition if one assumes that we do not try and use a Super Tucano as a direct replacement for a fast jet but rather as a complementary capability, where the speed and payload advantages of a fast jet are not as critical.

This is the argument that General Richards is advancing, swapping a small number of the exquisite in favour of more of the utility types, not an either-or argument.

It is an argument that I support, but we have to be careful to aim at the right places, using turboprops to replace fast jets in the close air support role would be more expensive and lead to a capability gap. In a complementary capacity, being able to augment the Apache Attack Helicopter, cover the armed reconnaissance role and perhaps provide some top cover or escort capability, would seem to make a lot of sense.

Is the Super Tucano the right aircraft for the job?

As a rule, we should be seeking to reduce the number of airframe types in service, commonality drives down support costs and achieves economies of scale.

Introducing yet another airframe does exactly the opposite.

With this in mind, an aircraft already in service (yes, we use the Shorts Tucano but it is a radically different aircraft to the Super Tucano) would be preferred.

All three services already operate the Beechcraft King Air 350 in some capacity.

It might not look as warlike as a Super Tucano but arguably is much more suitable as a complement to fast jets and the Apache attack helicopter. This would relieve the pressure on the fast jet force, spreading out airframe hours and providing a meaningful if a not significant reduction in overall operating costs.

We have already integrated communication, defensive aids and sensors so adding weapon functionality like Hellfire or even a future guided CRV-7 rocket should not be a significant or overly expensive exercise. We have discussed the potential of a guided CRV7 rocket, the CRV7-PG and would be a good fit, low cost, accurate and with a low yield warhead.

It has a very long endurance, sufficient crew comfort for long missions and could also provide limited electronic or signal intelligence and communications rebroadcast with a secondary role of air despatch also being very useful.

The Iraqi air force has for some time been operating armed Cessna C208B Combat Caravans, equipped with a pair of Hellfires, this shows the state of the possible and it is not as if this is even a new idea.

Accepting a reduction on fast jet numbers for a couple of squadrons of armed business turboprops like the King Air 350 should be high on the list of possible futures for the RAF.

An armed Shadow R1 for the RAF makes a lot of sense, a reasonable complementary capability to reduce costs but please let’s not kid ourselves it is a viable replacement for a Typhoon.

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