WASHINGTON — The Afghan Air Force is about to receive a new light-attack aircraft from the U.S. to support ground troops with cannons, rockets and missiles as they battle resurgent Taliban forces.
After a two-year delay caused by a fight over award of the contract, the first four of 20 A-29 Super Tucano propeller planes made by Sierra Nevada Corp. and Brazilian subcontractor Embraer will arrive this month. The planes will be flown by four of the first Afghan pilots to graduate from flight school at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia.
The unit will be declared ready to conduct operations in April, U.S. Air Force Capt. Eydie Sakura, a spokeswoman for the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing, said in an email.
"We'll get them in the fight as soon we can," Army Gen. John Campbell, the head of U.S. and NATO Afghan forces, said of the A-29s in testimony before a House panel in October. "It would have been a game-changer in some locations" if the planes had been available to help fight the Taliban last summer.
U.S. and Afghan officials see the new plane as a key step in building a capable air force for Afghanistan as U.S. and allied forces reduce their presence in a war that's far from over. The security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated since July "with an increase in effective insurgent attacks" and in casualties, according to a Pentagon report on Afghanistan last month.
The Afghan air force remains a modest operation compared with the U.S. Air Force and Navy, which provided combat support from advanced planes such as F-16s and F/A-18E/Fs before American combat was proclaimed officially over in 2014.
The U.S. has spent more than $2.5 billion since fiscal 2010 to train, equip and maintain the Afghan air force. It will require continued support for several years, according to the Pentagon report.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter underscored the importance of the A-29 on a visit to Afghanistan last month, spokesman Peter Cook said.
"Once fully capable, the A-29 will provide a precision- guided munitions capability and advanced sensors in addition to .50-caliber machine guns, rockets and general-purpose bombs," Cook said in an email. "This represents a significant increase in capability that will complement the MD-530 attack helicopters we are also providing the Afghans, as they build the capacity to secure the country on their own."
A-29 pilots will use VHF/UHF radios to communicate with ground controllers to coordinate attacks, the Air Force said.
The successful training of Afghan pilots for the A-29 "marks a crucial milestone for empowering the Afghan people to take greater control of the security of their country," Republican Rep. Austin Scott, whose district includes Moody Air Force Base, said in an email.
Closely held Sierra Nevada Corp., based in Sparks, Nev., and Embraer beat Beechcraft Corp. twice since 2011 in a fight for the A-29 contract that at the time was said to be valued at as much as $950 million.
The Air Force conducted two competitions, both won by Sierra Nevada. After the first award in 2011, Beechcraft sued the military over its exclusion. The Air Force held a second contest, and Sierra Nevada won again in February 2013.
The original contract called for all 20 aircraft to be delivered by Jan. 31, 2014. After the first four are delivered this month, the current schedule calls for the remaining 16 to arrive by 2018.