Air Force: Light Attack Experiment a New Approach to Buying

 - August 10, 2017, 1:32 AM
Support crew demonstrates austere rearming of A-29 Super Tucano at Holloman Air Force Base. (Photo: Bill Carey)

Testers expect to deliver an interim report in late September and a final report by year-end of their analyses of three turboprops and one jet under the U.S. Air Force’s Light Attack Experiment. The exercise may or may not lead to a decision to buy a new aircraft; what is certain is the experiment represents a new approach to acquiring weapons systems, Air Force officials said August 9 during an event at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, where the experiment is taking place.

Conducted under the direction of the Air Force Materiel Command, the Light Attack Experiment is a $6 million exercise Congress approved in the 2016-2017 national defense authorization act. Its stated objective is to “qualitatively evaluate the feasibility and affordability of low-cost commercial aircraft to conduct a variety of air-to-ground missions in permissive operations.” Based on the results of the experiment, the Air Force may decide to conduct a combat demonstration with one or more airplanes next year.

Three industry teams backing four aircraft agreed to participate in the experiment: Sierra Nevada Corporation and Embraer with the A-29 Super Tucano; Air Tractor and L3 Platform Integration Division with the AT-802L Longsword; and Textron Aviation with the AT-6 Wolverine turboprop and Scorpion jet. Tests of different mission scenarios by Air Force pilots with 1,000 hours in fighter aircraft, previous instructor qualification and combat experience started on July 10 and continue through August.  

There is currently no program to buy what the Air Force calls the OA-X, which the service says is not intended to replace the aging A-10 Thunderbolt II ground attack jet. In a January white paper, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), proposed acquiring 300 “low-cost, light-attack fighters that would require minimal work to develop.” These would conduct counterterrorism operations and perform close air support and other missions in permissive environments—those lacking sophisticated air defenses. The Senate Armed Services Committee that McCain chairs has added $1.2 billion in the Fiscal Year 2018 defense authorization act for an OA-X program.

The Air Force views the experiment as a component of a new approach to acquisition.

“We’re looking for new ways to do business, new ways to get ideas from the lab bench to the flight line faster, new ways to get capabilities to airmen who need them today and can’t wait two or three years for a normal acquisition process in the way that in the past have been forced to do things,” said Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. “We want to meet the demands of more permissive environments at lower cost; we want to develop capabilities for new test environments and use this experiment to evaluate the military utility of these kinds of aircraft and manufacturing feasibility of these kinds of aircraft. The empirical data that we gather from this experiment will inform strategic decisions about where we need to go from here.”

Wilson was among top Air Force officials who participated in the day-long event at Holloman AFB; among others were Air Force chief of staff Gen. David Goldfein, Air Combat Command head Gen. James Holmes and Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition. Congressional staffers, industry representatives and observers from Australia, Canada, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Uruguay also attended.

Goldfein did not speak at the event; instead he took part in flying the Textron AT-6 in the morning and the Sierra Nevada/Embraer A-29 in the afternoon. The Air Force has designated those two aircraft as top-tier platforms in terms of meeting its requirements for the experiment.

Asked about Textron’s participation, CEO Scott Donnelly said: “We’re thrilled to be here. I think what the Air Force is doing is fantastic. It’s giving them a great sense of what’s out there and what’s available in the marketplace. It’s giving us a lot of great interaction with them and getting their reaction as they fly and work around the aircraft. I think it’s a win for industry and for the Air Force. It’s kind of a novel thing they’ve done; I think it’s working out very well for everybody.”

Gary Spulak, president of Embraer’s U.S. subsidiary, said the A-29’s participation continues a heritage that includes the Air Force’s light air support program to provide 20 Super Tucanos assembled in Jacksonville, Florida, to the Afghan air force and a further foreign military sale of six to Lebanon.

“We are honored to be selected to be part of this experiment and honored to be invited,” Spulak told AIN. “It’s a pretty interesting undertaking. The ultimate objective in terms of how we feel our aircraft will make out in this process—we feel very strongly about it.”