WASHINGTON — The Air Force plans to ask for additional funds for a light aircraft flight demonstration in its supplemental budget request, the service's top general confirmed Thursday.

The Air Force and other military services are days away from their deadline to craft a supplemental request for fiscal year 2017, which Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said would be delivered to the Office of Management and Budget by March 1. Although most of the items on the supplemental are still shrouded in secrecy, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein acknowledged that an experiment of light attack aircraft is one of the items on its list.  

"It's not a lot of money to do an experiment," he said during an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Recent legislation gave the service chiefs the ability to authorize experiments, "so I exercised it."

Goldfein did not specify how much the service needs to conduct the flight demonstration, but the service's most recent unfunded requirements list earmarked $8 million for the activities.

The Air Force is considering buying a number of light attack planes to help conduct low-end missions in the Middle East, which would ease pressure on more advanced combat jets and help ameliorate aircraft shortages caused by continued readiness problems. But before moving to a program of record, termed OA-X, the service wants to see whether the aircraft already available on the market can meet its needs.

Goldfein pointed to Central Command’s Combat Dragon II demonstration, which tested the suitability of two 10 OV-10G+ Bronco turboprop planes doing counter-insurgency missions in an uncontested environment.

"We have all the operational data from that test" and the next step is seeing what industry can provide, he said. "I'm not interested in something that requires a lot of research and development here, I'm looking for something that I can get right now. Commercial off the shelf, low cost, that can operate in an uncontested environment [and] that can deliver the capabilities that we need."

Depending on the Air Force’s requirements, there could be a variety of aircraft in the running for OA-X. Perhaps the most high profile is Textron AirLand’s Scorpion jet, a light fighter designed for affordability that hasn’t yet been able to land a customer. The company projects unit costs for the Scorpion to come in at less than $20 million, with a flight hour clocking in at $3,000.

The contenders for T-X — particularly the designs already in production — could provide other options, especially if higher-end capability is needed. Lockheed Martin and Korea Aerospace Industries have sold an armed version of the T-50 training jet, the FA-50, to South Korea and the Philippines. Leonardo plans to make an attack version of its M-346 trainer over the next two years, which will be called the M-346FT.

Yet another alternative are turboprop planes like the Beechcraft AT-6 or Brazilian firm Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano, although the latter aircraft could face an uphill battle getting funded in the current administration, which favors domestic entries.

Unmanned aircraft might also be considered as potential solutions, Goldfein added.

Valerie Insinna was Defense News' air warfare reporter. Beforehand, she worked the Navy and congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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