Monday 9 August 2021

Turkmen Tucanos: Turkmenistan Unveils A-29B Attack Aircraft

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Turkmenistan has embarked on an ambitious re-equipment programme with the aim of modernising its air force through the acquisition of various types of new combat and transport aircraft. This acquisition drive has included types like the M-346 combat jet aircraft and the C-27J NG transport aircraft that have both been ordered from Italy. Another introduction that had been anticipated is the Brazilian A-29B Super Tucano turboprop light attack aircraft, which has so far been bought by more than fifteen countries around the globe. Turkmenistan was long rumoured to have been eying the acquisition of the popular attack aircraft, and one Super Tucano was even tested in the country for a short period in 2019.

The purchase of five A-29Bs comes with Turkmenistan currently facing a deteriorating security situation along its 804km long eastern border with Afghanistan. As countries in the region scramble to safeguard their borders after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan already heavily invested in increasing the capabilities of its armed forces since the early 2010s. Apart from greatly expanding its inventory of modern equipment and increasing training to deal with both domestic and foreign threats, these efforts have also materialised in the acquisition of several types of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) from China and the overhaul of most of its existing fleet of Su-25 combat aircraft.

Although it is as of yet difficult to predict how the situation in Afghanistan will continue to evolve for the foreseeable future, it may be argued that Turkmenistan is currently best prepared to deal with a possible escalation of conflict along the Turkmen border, with a sizeable border force standing ready in case conflict threatens to spoils over into Turkmenistan itself. Most notably, the Turkmen military has heavily focused on counterinsurgency (COIN) tactics and is one of the few countries in the region that has the ability of using modern precision guided munitions (PGMs) against ground targets. In addition to being able to use a variety of gun pods, unguided rockets and general purpose bombs, the A-29B too can deliver a wide arsenal of PGMs and likely will do much to further strengthen Turkmenistan's future capabilities in this field.
Before arriving in Turkmenistan, the five aircraft were extensively photographed on their delivery flight as they flew to the country via Cape Verde, the Spanish Canary Islands, Portugal, Malta and Turkey in May and June 2021. [1] [2] Although any markings indicating that the aircraft belonged to Turkmenistan were carefully taped over, plane spotters armed with digital cameras with large lenses easily revealed the roundel of the Turkmenistan Air Force located on the A-29B's tails during one of their stopovers in Luqa, Malta. [3]

The five aircraft come in a camouflage pattern that looks to have been based on the one also used by the Philippine Air Force's A-29Bs. Although the countries feature completely different climates, the Turkmenistan Air Force is known for adorning most of its aircraft with colourful liveries. This trend has seemingly now also carried over to the A-29Bs and to the country's new M-346s and C-27J NGs. The five A-29Bs are serialed 01, 02, 03, 04 and 05 Blue and were first showcased in a broadcasted inspection tour by Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow at Turkmenbashi International Airport on the 1st of August 2021.

Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow completes his inspection of A-29B '02 Blue'

In June 2019, Embraer's EMB 314 Super Tucano demonstration aircraft 'PT-ZTU' was put through its paces in Turkmenistan. At that time the Turkmen Air Force was looking at a number of Western aircraft designs for its re-equipment programme. All of these types were deployed to the country by their manufacturers in an effort to convince local authorities to acquire the aircraft. Of the types deployed, only the C-295 does not appear to have been purchased. It remains unknown whether an acquisition of this type is still planned or if the C-295 ultimately lost out against the Italian C-27JNG.

Acquired along with the A-29Bs were a number of different armament types. This includes one 12.7mm M3 heavy machine gun installed in each wing, rocket pods for 70mm rockets, SUU-20 munition dispensers for BDU-33 training bombs, 500lb Mk-82 dumb bombs, fuel tanks and chaff and flare dispensers. In Turkmen service the A-29Bs are also fitted with a EO/IR FLIR sensor, allowing the aircraft to find and designate its own targets before engaging them (with precision-guided munitions). Although PGMs for the A-29B so far appear to be missing in the Turkmen arsenal, they may well be acquired at some point in the future – potentially from Turkey, which manufactures a range of PGMs and has supplied Turkmenistan with numerous weapon types in the past.

In Turkmenistan the five A-29Bs are based at Mary-2 airbase located north of the city of Mary. Mary-2 is one of three military airports located in or around Mary; nearby Mary airbase/IAP is home to MiG-29s and Su-25s and a helicopter base in the city itself is used by Mi-17s and Mi-24s. Two more airbases in the country permanently house combat aircraft, with two others seeing detachments of Su-25s. Several more airbases are kept in operational condition, and could see deployment of combat aircraft if the need arises. In case of a deteriorating security situation along the border with Afghanistan, this could for instance see the A-29Bs being deployed to Galaýmor - Turkmenkaraku that is currently also home to a detachment of two Su-25s.

Five EMB 314 Super Tucanos along with six Su-25s at Mary-2 airbase. Also note the rows of retired Su-17s, Mi-8 helicopters and La-17 target drones

The same five EMB 314s shown in more detail

The acquisition of A-26Bs, M-346 light combat jet aircraft and C-27J transports propel the Turkmenistan Air Force to the forefront of modern air forces in the region, with many of its neighbours operating ageing designs facing heavy attrition. Further introductions such as that of precision-guided munitions for its A-29Bs will do much to fortify this position, making the Turkmen Air Force relatively well-equipped to accomplish the type of operations likely to be required of it. It is certain that this will not be the last development we will be presented with to further its goals, and another expansion of its capabilities for instance through the acquisition of Bayraktar TB2s from Turkey is anything but unlikely.