WASHINGTON — Participants in the U.S. Air Force's light-attack aircraft experiment are revving up training activities ahead of the beginning of the exercise next month at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.
So far, two companies have disclosed that they are taking part in the experiment, which will help the Air Force decide whether to start an OA-X program of record. Textron is bringing its Scorpion jet and the AT-6 Wolverine turboprop, while Sierra Nevada Corporation and Embraer have partnered up to offer the A-29 Super Tucano.
Both companies are already on the ground at Holloman and are preparing for the experiment to start on July 31, executives from both Sierra Nevada and Textron told Defense News in interviews earlier this month.
Sierra Nevada, or SNC, began training two Air Force pilots and two weapons systems officers to operate the aircraft on July 7. While the company will maintain the A-29 during its stay at Holloman, it will also provide some instruction to Air Force maintainers during the exercise, allowing them to weigh in on how easy it is to sustain the aircraft, said Taco Gilbert, SNC's senior vice president for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
Textron arrived with its AT-6 on July 9, and a group of instructor pilots and logistics, maintenance and support personnel are on the ground conducting training, said Bill Harris, the company's vice president of Scorpion jet sales. A Textron spokeswoman has since confirmed that Air Force pilots have already started flying the aircraft.
The Scorpion, which will fly in a later portion of the experiment, is set to arrive at the base on July 28.
Once training has wrapped up, the companies will hand the aircraft over to Air Force operators, who will put the planes through their paces in a series of flight tests. Over the four- to six-week experimentation period, Air Force crews will fly the planes in a number of missions and operational conditions — with ISR capability, operations with night vision gear, weapons employment, unimproved field operations, and aircraft handling all under evaluation.
"We are responsible for generating multiple sorties a day because we know they’re going to use the aircraft aggressively, but as far as what they will do in each mission we don’t know," Gilbert said. "But we’re very confident going in because we’ve done all these missions for years, and we’re doing them in combat now very successfully."
That confidence is shared by Textron's Harris, who told Defense News: "We want to win. ... We've got some great products out there that we can show them, so this has been a fantastic opportunity for us."
The U.S. Air Force has already purchased the A-29 for the Afghan and Lebanese militaries, which have flown the aircraft in combat in the Middle East — a fact SNC has been touting ahead of the demo.
A-29s purchased by the U.S. Air Force are first manufactured by Embraer in Jacksonville, Florida, and then customized by SNC afterward. The one flown in the light-attack demo will be no different, Gilbert said. It has already been modified with U.S. military-specific radios, sensors and data links. Gilbert declined to detail the full configuration for competitive reasons, but confirmed that the company had added Link 16 and a forward-looking infrared sensor.
"We’re hoping for a very comprehensive evaluation because the deeper they look, I think the better we look," he said.
"We want to be sure they do not just [perform] a quick touch and go on an unimproved field, but we want them to operate from an unimproved field over and over again because we’re made to do that. We want them to fly with asymmetric stores," he continued. "We want them to slam the throttles around at all airspeeds — high speed, low speed — and see what kind of torque response they get. Because we know we’re made for that. The airframe was designed with the extra length, with the large control surfaces to handle full throttle at any speed."
The A-29 has competed against the AT-6 during the Air Force’s light-attack support competition that ended with a contract to SNC and Embraer to provide the Super Tucano to the Afghan Air Force. However, Harris said that wouldn’t necessarily give the A-29 the advantage during OA-X.
Although Textron has never sold the armed AT-6 to the United States, it has produced more than 1,000 units of its forbearer, the T-6, including those flown by the Air Force for pilot training.
"It’s an aircraft that the Air Force already knows, logistic bases already in place, you’ve had a lot of pilots that have already been flying that aircraft in a very similar configuration, although the AT-6 is the newest and greatest and has additional capability," he said.
Textron’s Scorpion is a bit of an outlier as the only jet-powered aircraft participating in the exercise. At about $3,000 per flight hour, it’s more expensive than its turboprop competitors like the A-29, which costs about $1,000 per flight hour to operate, according to SNC. However, it can fly faster and higher, provide standoff capability, and has additional space and power for more advanced sensors, Harris said.
Harris said Textron didn’t have to make extensive modifications to the AT-6 and Scorpion ahead of the experiment. In part, that was because the aircraft were designed with a U.S. audience in mind.
But because neither the Scorpion and AT-6 are in use by the U.S. government, there is some gear the company wasn’t able to incorporate for the demo.
"Since Scorpion in particular is all developed by private funds, it’s not an aircraft of record, we don’t have access to some of the equipment [specified by the Air Force]" like automatic self-protection or jamming products, he said. "That was taken into account in this notional configuration of the aircraft," and Textron was allowed to provide data to the service on how long it would take to integrate those capabilities.
Once the experiment wraps up, it will be up to the Air Force to decide whether to pursue additional flight demonstrations, to start a program of record or to shelve the entire concept. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein has said the service may consider another round of tests in the Middle East to see whether the aircraft can hack it in an operational context.
SNC has trumpeted the fact that the A-29 is already certified by the U.S. Air Force, which could speed up the fielding of the aircraft.
"All of the aircraft will have to have an Air Force certification if this goes forward to a program, and certification is a long, complicated and expensive process," Gilbert said. "It has some risk involved with it, and therefore that will be evaluated, I would assume, as part of any program if it gets to that."
Harris downplayed that as a major consideration, stating that Textron is prepared to move quickly to certify each aircraft and start production.
"AT-6 will take less time [to finish being certified] because of where they are and the previous work that’s been done," he said. "It’s only going to take six to nine months longer for Scorpion."
When asked how quickly the aircraft could be certified and when the company could begin mass production of the AT-6 and Scorpion, Harris said the exact timelines would be dependent on the Air Force’s preferred schedule. However, the T-6 production line is already active and producing aircraft, he noted.
"It wouldn’t be long. I don’t think it’s an advantage that anybody has over us. I know that we can move quickly," he said.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/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.