Wolverine Light Attack Aircraft Joins the U.S. Air Force

 - February 19, 2021, 7:28 AM
The first AT-6E is seen during the formal handover ceremony that was conducted on February 3. (Photo: Brett Schauf via Air Force Life Cycle Management Center)

The U.S. Air Force has finally acknowledged that it received the first of two Beechcraft AT-6E Wolverine light attack aircraft on December 18, 2020, and mounted a closed ceremony recognizing the handover in Wichita, Kansas, on February 3, 2021. The aircraft, wearing the serial 20-8101, was the third production-representative test vehicle produced by Beechcraft, and previously wore a desert camouflage color scheme and the registration N630LA.

Textron Aviation Defense announced the finalization of a $70.2 million contract with the U.S. Air Force Life Cycle Management Center in March 2020. This contract covered the provision of two Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine aircraft, pilot training, engineering services and up to four years of contractor support for maintenance and spares. The first aircraft was to be an existing Beechcraft test asset, but the second is newly built.

Over the next six months the aircraft will remain at Wichita, where the Light Attack Aircraft Program Office and Textron Aviation Defense will work together to obtain airworthiness certification for the AT-6E. Once the aircraft has a U.S. military type certificate, it will be available for export under the direct commercial sales process, or via the foreign military sales procedure. Both Tunisia and Thailand have received U.S. Congressional approval to acquire the type, and other nations are understood to be interested in acquiring the AT-6E.

The U.S. Air Force's plans for the Wolverine seem to be changing. Initially, it indicated that the two AT-6Es would support the Air Combat Command’s (ACC) development of operational tactics and standards for exportable, tactical data-sharing networks. In particular, the aircraft was to be used to help prove the new Airborne Extensible Relay Over-Horizon Network (AEROnet), the USAF’s prototype data-sharing network, which is intended to improve interoperability with international partners.

However, it now seems that, after completing the airworthiness certification, Textron Aviation Defense will train multiple USAF instructor pilots from the 81st Fighter Squadron in preparation for the Continued Light Attack Experiment (CLAE), which will take place between January and May 2022. The CLAE is intended to explore cost-effective solutions to Countering Violent Extremist Organizations (C-VEO) by co-developing and implementing tactics, techniques and procedures with partner nations, utilizing a light attack aircraft. 

Although the USAF once said that it wanted “a viable cost-effective capability to counter the violent extremist threat, freeing fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft to face emerging threats,” the prospects of the Air Force ordering a light attack aircraft for its own use seem to have receded. The USAF now appears to view light attack aircraft as a means of supporting allies and building the capacity of partner nation air forces, rather than as something that it might itself operate.

Meanwhile, U.S. Special Operations Command has launched its Armed Overwatch program, and may eventually acquire some 75 “deployable and sustainable manned aircraft systems” to replace the Pilatus U-28A Draco (a PC-12 variant) for “close air support, precision strike, and SOF intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in austere and permissive environments.” However, there is no certainty that this would lead to a light attack aircraft acquisition.