Thursday, July 23, 2009
In a move that harkens back to the days of recycled World War II torpedo bombers sheep-dipped as close air support planes, the Navy intends to field a limited number of turbo-prop attack planes outfitted with the most modern surveillance, tracking and weapons systems to help special ops forces keep track of bad guys and, in a pinch, put warheads on foreheads. Call it an A-1 Skyraider on steroids – a “Back to the Future”-resurrection of a kind of plane last seen pounding enemy positions with rockets, guns and bombs over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the 1960s. Code named “Imminent Fury,” the classified, year-long program has so far produced one fully-outfitted plane and is set to field four more to directly support SEALs and other operators on the battlefield in Afghanistan. According to a source close to the program who declined to be named, the Navy has leased an EMB-314 Super Tucano for the job. Made by the Brazilian aerospace company Embraer, it is now being tested on desert ranges in California and the service’s top test facility at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md. The Navy loaded it up with sensors and weapons systems that “would make an F-16 pilot blush,” the source said. With top end electro-optical and infrared sensors, laser and GPS-guided bombs, rockets, twin .50 cal. machine guns, encrypted radios – and even the capability to tie in UAV surveillance feeds – the Super Tucano outfitted for the SEALs is a ground-pounder’s angel from above. Military.com contacted the Navy for comment on this story, but despite a detailed public briefing on the program in March by a high-ranking program official, the service declined to elaborate on the program other than to say in a written statement: “Imminent Fury is a classified Navy initiative to address urgent warfighter needs. Initial developmental testing has been promising and the Navy is currently conducting discussions with our Joint partners on various courses of action as this initiative moves forward.”News of the Imminent Fury program comes as commanders in Afghanistan wrestle with the persistent problem of civilian casualties resulting from errant or mistaken bomb strikes – typically from aircraft high above the battlefield. A recent investigation report on a high-profile friendly-fire incident in Farah province showed that high-altitude B-1 bombers had little ability to discriminate enemy from civilians during several bombings in support of Marine spec ops forces under Taliban assault. Many argue that low-altitude aircraft that can fly for long periods over combat zones loaded with various weapons are needed to avoid such incidents. For advocates of the Imminent Fury program, the Super Tucano – with its five-hour endurance – fits the bill for a so-called “counter insurgency aircraft.” “The SEALs said ‘we want a persistent capability at low cost, small footprint and turbo-prop aircraft to do armed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions,’ ” the source close to the program said. “Everyone who gets briefed on this program has been blown away. Over the past year, both Navy and Air Force pilots have flown the leased Super Tucano in tests. According to the source, the single-engine, two-pilot plane has successfully dropped both laser and GPS guided bombs, as well as a wide range of guided and unguided rockets. According to statistics from an Embraer brochure, the EMB-314 has a maximum speed of nearly 370 mph and a maximum ceiling of 35,000 feet. The plane can take off and land in just under 3,000 feet and can carry a maximum load of nearly 3,500 pounds. The initial cadre of four SEAL-supporting Super Tucanos will be flown by Navy pilots activated as individual augmentees, and multiple sources close to the program report that aviators are clamoring to get involved with the program. But it is still unclear whether Imminent Fury will get off the ground since funding for the program is in doubt. Sources say there is no money earmarked for the program in the 2010 budget but that the service “is hoping for some reprogramming authority” to move funds from other accounts to buy the four planes requested by the SEALs.