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Navy eyes Super Tucano for SpecOps work

Mar. 13, 2009 - 05:13PM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 13, 2009 - 05:13PM  |  
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The Navy's new Irregular Warfare office has been looking at an agile Brazilian observation and ground-attack turboprop to provide an "organic" close air support aircraft for special operations forces.

Under the classified "Imminent Fury" program, the Navy has already leased, tested and armed at least one Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano, according to Capt. Mark Mullins, a naval special warfare officer serving as the deputy director of the Navy Irregular Warfare Office at the Pentagon.

"This is a close air support, manned aircraft with a pilot and sensor operator. The idea here is that SOF needs an organic capability that can stick with them while they're doing their mission," Mullins said. "We're not buying them; we're leasing them right now. That's an important point."

Speaking Thursday at an exposition on expeditionary warfare in Virginia Beach, Va., Mullins said the intent is to put four of the single-engine aircraft into the fight as quickly as possible.

"Now we're in an operational pause, trying to figure out how to get to Phase II. We need about $44 million," he said. "Back to the method of venture capitalism, we're working with the Air Force and Marine Corps, socializing it with those guys to see if we can get money invested and get to Phase II, where we're taking four aircraft into theater."

The EMB-314 is flown by the military forces of Brazil and Colombia, according to Christine Manna, communications director at Embraer's office for North America in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

As well, Manna said, Chile bought 12 planes and the Dominican Republic bought eight, but the planes have not been delivered yet.

The Super Tucano has a flight endurance of more than six hours, carries several sensors, can be armed with a heavy machine gun in each wing and has mounts for bombs, cannon and rocket pods, according to Jane's All the World's Aircraft 2008-9.

Calling it a "fascinating piece of kit," Mullins said, "the proof of concept" is complete after a year of testing. But he described Imminent Fury as his new office's "most contentious project," mostly due to wariness from naval aviation.

"You can imagine the SOF guys and Marines really love this," he said. "The challenge here, and why it's so contentious, is it falls into the seam where it's really not clear whose bailiwick it is. It's not a marinized aircraft. It doesn't fly off the carrier."

Mullins said the Super Tucano can be landed on an unimproved airstrip such as a road, refueled in minutes and sent right back into the fray.

A briefing slide on the Imminent Fury project obtained by Navy Times identifies the need for a "tactical fixed wing [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance] platform to provide expeditionary, organic Find/Fix/Finish operations for SOF Forces in a maneuverable, long range, low heat signature platform."

The project began following a visit by Navy Secretary Donald Winter with naval special warfare task forces in the Central Command area in October 2007, according to a similar brief.

"It's not about flying in from 1,000 miles away, dropping some thousand-pound bombs and leaving," Mullins said. "It's about working with [the ground force], doing the intelligence preparation of the battlespace, doing a [communication] relay, close air support, eyes on target and if there's squirters leaving the target, keeping up with them and tracking them down and doing [bomb damage assessment] at the end."

Although Mullins said the project is awaiting funding to move forward, a slide in Mullins' presentation indicated it's sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Naval Air Systems Command and the Navy.

"Imminent Fury is a classified Navy initiative to address urgent warfighter needs," said Lt. Sean Robertson, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon. "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."

Mullins delivered an unclassified brief, but details of Imminent Fury remain classified, Robertson said.

The Irregular Warfare office, part of the Navy staff at the Pentagon, was established last July under the direction of Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations. It's headed by Rear Adm. Mark Kenny, a submariner.

"Our goal is to rapidly deliver capabilities and effects," Mullins said. "And we are the CNO's lead for irregular warfare."

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