In his recent visit to Afghanistan, President Obama signed an agreement aimed at building a more robust relationship with an independent Afghanistan, where it takes control of its own security. The transition from US managed to Afghan-led security will require proper training and support, providing the Afghan military the needed skills and equipment to stand on its own.
A crucial aspect of an Afghani self-determined defense strategy will be the control of its skies. The US Air Force is currently in the process of procuring aircraft to support the Afghan Air Force, which would add 20 state of the art aircraft to the Afghan military arsenal.
Unfortunately, the road to this has been met with several significant bumps, as the Air Force last year awarded the contract to Brazilian company Embraer for its Super Tucano, as opposed to Kansas-based Hawker Beechcraft for its AT-6, which is manufactured in America. In a recent turn of events, however, the contract for the Brazilian-made aircraft was dismissed by the Secretary of the Air Force, and the contract is back on the table, setting off a new bidding process once again between a foreign company and one that is American-owned and operated.
In order to successfully and independently fight terror, countries like Afghanistan need a superior aircraft from a trustworthy and reliable source. Currently, the US Air Force has identified at least 27 countries, in addition to Afghanistan, which require an aircraft to fulfill Light Air Support (LAS) missions as defined by the United States Air Force.
Building “partnership capacity,” by manufacturing and supplying aircraft to America’s allies, is a key role outlined in America’s national security strategy. I have direct experience with how this type of partnership can develop essential relationships between the U.S. and other nations, after spending two tours on the Joint Staff in Washington and another in the Pacific, where I focused on international political and military policy.
One has to ask then, why would we want to provide an aircraft that is not even made in this country or flown by our own Airmen, particularly after the U.S. has invested so much in Afghanistan over the past decade?
The underlying reason appears to be the defense relationship between the US and Brazil. The US has recently been trying to bulk up relations with the South American country, perhaps in the hopes of off-loading some of its defense responsibility in the Western Hemisphere.
The LAS contract may throw a wrench in those plans to some extent if not awarded to Brazil, given the country’s very calculated complaints around the awarding of this contract. However, could that not also be interpreted to mean that the proposal was awarded to Embraer in the first place not based on the technical merits of the aircraft, but rather due to political pressure from our neighbor down South? Brazil is crying out about so-called political interference in the process, and given the lack of transparency around the basis of the original decision made last year, one could just as easily argue it was awarded to Brazil in the first place only to appease them.
Because of the pressure coming from Brazil over the contract, the Obama administration and State Department are, in somewhat unprecedented fashion, stepping into the fray. In April, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited the country as part of a highly-publicized campaign to promote an initiative known as the US – Brazil Defense Cooperation Dialogue, during which he alluded to Brazil as among “our closest partners.”
As Vinod Sreeharsha with McClatchy News reported, “Marco Aurelio Garcia, a foreign policy adviser to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, said: ‘We have a very good relation with the U.S. and we want to continue to develop it. But a decision like this creates problems not only in military relations but in economic and commercial relations.’”
Since the cancellation, Brazil has been tossing out such threats, perhaps a tactic used to intimidate our nation into appeasing the South American country. After all, Embraer itself has stated that the real value in the LAS contract is not the dollar figure associated with the 20 aircraft, but rather to add the US military to its resume, opening the door for business with other countries, nefarious or not.
As Brazil beefs up and modernizes its military, there are also defense contracts up for grabs by American companies. Some have speculated that the administration’s interest actually lies in securing US-based Boeing’s sale of 36 F-18 Super Hornet jet fighters in a contentious competition worth a reported $6 billion. The belief is that Brazil is using this much larger deal as collateral.
It is time to eliminate the political games and really drill down on the broader implications this deal has for America’s national security strategy. We most certainly want our Airmen teaching foreign nations, particularly those to which we have made a significant commitment, how to employ weapons that our Airmen are familiar with and trust. Afghanistan needs an aircraft that can tangibly fight terror.
As Afghanistan embarks on a crucial mission in protecting a struggling government from slipping back into lawlessness and harboring terrorism, it is critical that Afghanistan’s LAS aircraft be supplied by a nation who supports the war on terror and Operation Enduring Freedom, rather than one who publicly condemns it like Brazil.
The clock is ticking to get Afghanistan the air support they so desperately need. Even if Embraer’s Super Tucano was awarded a contract tomorrow, it would take years to get the required certification for weapons employment. Meanwhile, the AT-6 has been certified for US and NATO weapons employment, and it is a familiar platform to US Airmen and air forces around the world through Hawker Beechcraft’s widely popular T-6 trainer aircraft.
If the US Air Force chooses an aircraft manufactured outside our borders to be the LAS aircraft, then we are allowing that country to potentially have significant influence on our policies and relationships with the countries we are trying to help.
If Brazil’s Super Tucano was selected by the US, Brazil could later choose to not support our policies and withdraw training, people, parts, etc. used to support the aircraft. Where does that leave the US or Afghanistan?
My point is not to say Brazil or some other country won’t support us, but why would the US Air Force want to put us in that position to begin with? To fix a problem like that wouldn’t just be expensive and time consuming. The fallout could also be potentially devastating to US interests abroad.
Lt. Gen. Jeffrey A. Remington (Ret.) served as a three-star general in the U.S. Air Force, with more than 35 years of experience and 4,100 flying hours. He is now an independent aviation consultant that counts Hawker Beechcraft among his clients. The views expressed here are his own.