Attack plane built for Afghanistan comes under scrutiny
By Clifford Davis
The Florida Times-Union
Published: November 30, 2014
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Embraer rolled its first A-29 Super Tucano attack plane out of its Jacksonville facility to grinning politicians and military brass in September as part of the U.S. Air Force’s contract to supply Afghanistan with its own ground-support capability.
Now, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) questions whether the 20 planes — and the $429 million of taxpayers’ money — will be wasted.
Inspector General John F. Sopko noted his concerns in a letter dated Nov. 12 to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, and Gen. John F. Campbell, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the International Security Assistance Force.
Sopko is concerned the Afghans don’t know how to operate or maintain the aircraft and sending them to the country is futile.
“I am concerned that this program could be affected by training and maintenance problems similar to those identified by SIGAR in prior inquiries concerning programs to provide aircraft to the Afghan military,” Sopko wrote. “Given the important role that this program is intended to play in developing the Afghan military’s air capability and the hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars at stake, I request a briefing for my staff on the LAS program at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia.”
The U.S. Air Force’s Light Air Support (LAS) program is just one arm of a multi-pronged approach to supply the Afghan military with aircraft.
The “prior inquiries” Sopko mentioned came during a previous investigation into government efforts to put aircraft into Afghan hands. That investigation led to Sopko’s June 2013 report with the lengthy, but damning title: “Afghan Special Mission Wing: DOD Moving Forward with $771.8 Million Purchase of Aircraft that the Afghans Cannot Operate and Maintain.”
In addition to Afghans lacking the knowledge and resources to keep the aircraft airborne, Sopko’s office also found that $553.8 million was awarded to Rosoboronexport, “the sole Russian government agency selling Russian-made defense items and military hardware,” despite Congress’ ban on contracting with the company, which was written into the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.
However, the Department of Defense effectively sidestepped Congress and completed the purchase for 30 Mi-17 helicopters on June 16, 2013.
“By using fiscal year 2012 funds for the award, DOD concluded that it was legally able to proceed with the purchase,” according to the report.
Despite dealing with some nefarious partners such as the Russian company, few question the necessity of providing the Afghan military with air power. Any infantryman knows there is no substitute for friends in the sky.
“The Afghan Air Force very much needs the A-29,” Afghan Air Force Maj. Gen. Abdul Wahab said at the Tucano’s public debut in September. “Right now, we don’t have any air support that can guard our troops.”
As much as air support might be needed, the long-term viability of Afghanistan’s military — after 13 years of U.S. involvement — remains in question.
The Afghan air force is still largely dependent on the U.S. military and contractors for aircraft maintenance.
Afghanistan’s 26 percent adult literacy rate and fear of radical ties combine to limit available recruits to crew and maintain the aircraft.
However, with an unstable, nuclear-armed Pakistan right next door, the stakes for success are high.
What this all means for Jacksonville’s Embraer plant is unclear. Only $429 million of the Air Force’s LAS contract has been spent on the first 20 planes and training equipment, with a maximum amount allowed of $950 million. This means that if the program goes well, there is enough meat left on the bone for many more planes.
Whether more planes will come out of the Northside facility in the future remains up in the air.
Neither Embraer nor its project partner, Sierra Nevada Corp., responded to multiple phone and email requests for comment.
The U.S. Air Force also did not respond to comment requests concerning the LAS program.
U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw, a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, attended the initial rollout in September. The Embraer facility at Jacksonville International Airport is in his district.
The Times-Union asked Crenshaw’s office if the congressman thought the Afghans capable of maintaining the aircraft; if he was aware of past problems in similar programs; and if he thought the $429 million was ill-spent.
He replied: “The Afghanis need a close air support platform to effectively meet their long-term security goals. The A-29 platform has performed that role for many other nations and can do so for the Afghan Air Corps. No one has ever doubted there would be challenges along the road to providing them the wherewithal to be independent long after the U.S. has left. As challenges arise, I am confident that the Department of Defense and Congress will work to mitigate them.”