WASHINGTON — If the U.S. Air Force determines it needs an OA-X light attack aircraft this summer, it will find strong support in the Senate Armed Services Committee, which has already authorized $1.2 billion to begin buying new planes.
SASC, which dropped its version of the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act on Wednesday night, is currently the only congressional committee that has approved funding for a potential OA-X program. The U.S. Air Force itself has not even committed to starting up a program of record, intending instead to make a decision after it flies a handful of planes this August at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.
"The idea behind putting in funding is to actually move this program along," a Senate aide said Thursday in a background briefing with reporters. "The committee thinks it's a good idea and that needs to [progress]. The best way to do that is to provide funding to get the program started."
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Members of SASC are responsible for drafting the yearly defense policy bill but don't actually get to issue funding to the government — a job left for the House and Senate appropriations committees. Therefore, it's very likely that the $1.2 billion for OA-X never actually makes it to the final spending bill.
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who chairs SASC, was an early supporter of OA-X. In a white paper published this January, McCain called for buying 300 low-cost, off-the-shelf light attack aircraft. Two hundred of those planes should be procured by fiscal 2022 to meet current operational demands, he said.
"The Air Force should embrace a 'high/low mix' of fighter aircraft. Very expensive fifth-generation technology is not needed in every scenario," McCain wrote. "These aircraft could conduct counterterrorism operations, perform close air support and other missions in permissive environments, and help to season pilots to mitigate the Air Force’s fighter pilot shortfall."
While the House Armed Services Committee did not include money for OA-X procurement, its version of the defense authorization bill it did have a provision calling for a report on the outcome of the flight demonstration. The amendment, offered by Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., also encourages the Air Force to "provide the Congress with a supplemental funding request and acquisition plan" if the experiment validates a requirement for light attack aircraft.
Although the Air Force has not confirmed the full list of participants in the light attack demo, several companies have disclosed their plans to take part. Sierra Nevada Corp. and Embraer have teamed up to offer the A-29, which the service is already purchasing for Afghanistan’s Air Force.
Textron will fly two planes, the turboprop AT-6 and the Scorpion jet. Like the A-29, the AT-6 has been positioned as a low-cost attack aircraft optimized for low-end missions. The more expensive Scorpion jet offers more sensor capability and could be a more attractive option if the Air Force decides it needs higher performance.
Industry officials see the recent actions by the House and Senate defense committees as a sign of support for a future OA-X program.
Taco Gilbert, Sierra Nevada’s senior vice president for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, mentioned both the Senate version of the NDAA and the Koffman amendment during an interview with Defense News on Thursday.
"We’re trying to read the tea leaves, and right now, the tea leaves are pointing toward support on the other side of the river for the program, which is obviously very important," Gilbert said, referencing Capitol Hill, which is separated by the Potomac from the Pentagon.
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.