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Textron sets its sights on US Air Force's light aircraft experiment

March 14, 2017 (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Textron)
WASHINGTON — Textron is chomping at the bit for the U.S. Air Force’s planned light attack aircraft demonstration, where it plans to show off the capabilities of the Textron AirLand Scorpion jet and Beechcraft AT-6.

The Air Force has yet to greenlight a program of record, but the service intends to invite industry to participate in flight experiments this summer at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. If the exercise goes well and companies are able to prove a business case, the service could embark on an light attack aircraft acquisition, or OA-X.

In an exclusive interview with Defense News, Textron officials said they see sales opportunities for at least two of its existing planes if the Air Force moves ahead with OA-X.

“We think this will be a complimentary capability to the Air Force’s CAS [close-air support] assets, and we agree with the Air Force that there is certainly a need,” said Jim Grant, Textron Aviation's senior vice president of military programs. “We believe we have at least two aircraft that are great candidates for OA-X, and so we’re actually very excited to see what the actual requirements are.”

Top Air Force brass have acknowledged that the fight against militant groups in the Middle East isn’t likely to subside for at least another decade, but ongoing operations are taxing the service’s limited number of aircraft. The idea behind OA-X is that if the Air Force was to invest in several hundred low-cost attack planes, it could use its more expensive, sophisticated aircraft for training against high-end threats, contributing to overall readiness.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein signed a memo on March 8 formally authorizing the flight demonstration, service spokeswoman Ann Stefanek confirmed in an email to Defense News. The memo explains that the Air Force plans to conduct a variety of experiments meant to help the service make future force structure and modernization decisions, with the light attack aircraft demo as the first campaign.

A formal invite to industry is expected within weeks or perhaps even days. The Air Force’s strategic development planning and experimentation office, located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, will lead the effort.

The service has not reached consensus on potential OA-X requirements, only that entries must be low-cost and ready for production. Therefore, Textron is proposing multiple options with different layers of capability.

If the service opts for an inexpensive turboprop type of aircraft, Beechcraft’s AT-6 could be a good fit, said Grant. The aircraft is based on the T-6A used by the Air Force for basic pilot training and modified for the light attack mission. The AT-6 features seven hard points for general-purpose, laser-guided and inertially aided weapons. It also boasts low operating costs and can be flown for less than $1,000 per hour.

“When it comes to a turboprop, we believe that it is a very viable candidate,” Grant said.

In that category, the AT-6 could come up against Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano, which the U.S. government has purchased for the Afghan air force. But while commonality with allies could be a selling point for the A-29, the idea of buying a Brazilian plane could rankle the “America First” Trump administration.

If the service is willing to pay more for added capability, the Scorpion jet offers greater performance and more flexibility than a turboprop plane, said Bill Harris, Textron AirLand’s vice president of Scorpion sales.

Textron designed the Scorpion with modularity in mind, allowing it to quickly adapt different sensors and weapons in its internal payload bay or the six hard points located on the wings, which can collectively carry 6,200 pounds of ordnance.

The jet’s ability to fire precision-guided munitions while maintaining low levels of noise could make it a better choice for urban close-air support than loud, less advanced turboprop planes, Harris said.

“These confusing, urban-type battlefield engagements where the target has very short dwell time and it’s hard to dig out where the target might be [located], so you’re working with ground forces as well as other aircraft," he said. "I think the Scorpion has some capabilities with the sensors that it can carry to tackle that kind of a mission that may be a little more difficult for an AT-6."

The Scorpion hasn’t found a launch customer, and Textron AirLand is currently in the throes of manufacturing the third production-conforming jet. Depending on the size of the order and the modifications, Harris estimated unit prices could clock in at $20 million to $30 million a copy, with an operating cost of about $3,000 per flight hour.  
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