A May 18 New York Times editorial called on the United State government to block the sale of Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano surveillance/attack planes to Nigeria. The Times based its view on continuing corruption and charges of chronic human rights violations leveled against the Nigerian Armed Forces in the fight against Boko Haram.
The Nigerian Army does need to improve its treatment of civilians, but the Times Editorial Board has it wrong about the Super Tucano in multiple ways:
First, the light surveillance/attack aircraft, also known as the A-29, is produced by Embraer, a Brazilian firm, not a U.S. aircraft maker. The United States can’t “block” a sale if the Nigerians were to purchase the aircraft directly from its Brazil factory as most countries have done.
However, the Times is correct that the Department of Defense (DOD) could refuse a Nigerian request to procure Super Tucanos through the Foreign Military Sales channel (FMS).
The United States is providing Super Tucanos to the fledgling Afghan Air Force, and Lebanon signed an FMS contract with DOD in 2015 for the attack plane. Saudi Arabia will pay for Lebanon’s aircraft.
Embraer has recently opened a facility in Florida and has an agreement with the U.S. firm Sierra Nevada to assemble Super Tucanos for the U.S. Air Force and the Afghan military. All FMS cases are reviewed by the Administration for suitability and notified to Congress.
Second, other West African countries have already purchased Super Tucanos directly from Brazil without any U.S. involvement. At least three other African governments, including Senegal, Ghana, and Mali, have also placed orders for the light attack aircraft. This is the route for Nigeria will take if the United States seeks to “block” the sale.
Finally, the Super Tucano offers an agile and stable platform with superior avionics that should reduce collateral damage and civilian deaths.
Another way to minimize unintended targets in Nigeria is through a training program in which EU or USAF service members and legal experts work directly with their Nigerian counterparts to review and improve rules of engagement.
Currently, the Nigerian Air Force relies on its aging fleet of Dassault/Dornier Alpha jets, which are too fast and poorly equipped to provide the accuracy needed for this counter-insurgency fight.
The Super Tucano is not a budget buster; each aircraft costs approximately $18 million, including training, support, and spares with an average cost per hour of operation of $1,000. In comparison, the USAF reports that the A-10’s estimated hourly rate is $17,700. The F-16 costs about $22,000 per hour and the C-130’s rate is nearly $18,000. Even the turboprop T-6A that had competed with the Super Tucano previously costs more than $2,200/hour.
The turbo-prop Super Tucano is the right plane for Nigeria and other African countries. The continent’s dream for jet fighters and attack aircraft is just that — a dream. Most African militaries simply do not have the resources to sustain jet-powered aircraft. You can tour air bases across the continent and see the carcasses of military jet aircraft from the 1970s and 1980s — mostly MiG 21s and MiG 23s, courtesy of the former Soviet Union.
The NY Times editorial board needs to recognize, one way or another, Nigeria will procure Super Tucanos. It’s a smart, sustainable aircraft that is an ideal counter-insurgency airplane with which to fight Boko Haram.