WASHINGTON — Sierra Nevada Corp. and Embraer are touting the A-29's American pedigree ahead of an upcoming flight demonstration that could pave the way for a competition with Wichita, Kan.-based Textron and potential sales to the U.S. Air Force.
Embraer and Sierra Nevada — the original manufacturer of the A-29 Super Tucano in Brazil, and its prime contractor in the United States, respectively — are gearing up for the Air Force's OA-X light attack aircraft experiment this August at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. There, the A-29 and Textron's Scorpion jet and AT-6 Wolverine will be put through their paces, flying simulated missions on a daily basis over a four- to six-week period.
At the end of the demo, the service will decide whether to start a program of record for an OA-X aircraft that will be used for close air support missions in the Middle East, freeing up more expensive fighter jets for high-end missions that justify their more expensive operating cost. An estimated 300 aircraft could be on the line.
The A-29 has already faced off against the AT-6 once, during the Light Attack Support competition in the early 2010s that resulted in a buy of 20 aircraft for Afghanistan’s fledgling air force. Although the A-29 emerged victorious during that battle, it was hard fought, as congressional allies of the AT-6 — then owned by Hawker Beechcraft — played up the Super Tucano’s Brazilian origins in the hopes of weakening its chance at winning the contract.
SNC and Embraer are hoping to avoid a similar fight during an OA-X competition, which is one reason the companies in late June launched the "A-29 for America" campaign on social media, said Taco Gilbert, SNC’s senior vice president for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
"That was a big part of it," he said in a June 29 interview with Defense News.
Although Embraer manufactures most Super Tucano orders in Brazil, planes sold to the U.S. Air Force are produced in its Jacksonville, Fla.-line and then modified by Sierra Nevada to the customer’s preferred configuration, he noted.
"The workers down in Jacksonville kept feeling like they were ignored in this, and so we wanted them to get the respect that they deserved for building airplanes that quite frankly are delivering important combat capability in Afghanistan every single day. They are saving lives in Afghanistan every single day, and those planes rolled off the Jacksonville line."
Textron, which bought Hawker Beechcraft in 2014, so far has not sought to characterize the A-29 as a Brazilian plane. However, Gilbert acknowledged that potential competitors could do so in the future in an attempt to "obfuscate" details about the aircraft’s combat capability or Embraer’s foothold in the United States.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposed expansion of Buy American laws could also pose a potential hurdle, although SNC and Embraer officials have downplayed the impact. Gilbert pointed to Trump’s support of an A-29 sale to Nigeria as evidence of the administration’s endorsement of the program.
"It’s U.S. production. We build the airplanes in America with American workers," he said. "Multiple times now, the U.S. government has awarded contracts for A-29s, and those contracts were all awarded under the Buy American provisions. So it’s fully compliant with Buy American, and I think the Floridians that are down in Jacksonville putting this airplane together deserve credit for that."
Since its launch in June, a dedicated "A-29 for America" Twitter feed has tweeted a stream of A-29 photos and related news articles multiple times a day. Although pictures of the aircraft in combat abound, so do American flag emojis and images as well as mentions of Embraer’s Jacksonville production line.
One typical tweet, from June 30: "#A29 proudly built in Jacksonville, Florida - more than 20 states provide parts/products/services to support the mission #MadeintheUSA"
The campaign has also sent targeted emails to journalists containing information about the light attack aircraft experiment and quotes from OA-X supporters.
According to Gilbert, the aircraft has logged almost 40,000 combat hours and 300,000 operational hours across 13 operators.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.