WASHINGTON — The Air Force is considering a near-term buy of light attack aircraft to help relieve mounting operations costs, ameliorate a fighter pilot shortage and improve readiness, a top general told Defense News in an exclusive interview.
Lt. Gen. James M. "Mike" Holmes, the service's deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, is floating a number of options to Air Force leaders, including a potential flight demonstration of inexpensive, off-the-shelf tactical airplanes that could occur as early as spring 2017.
Holmes stressed that a new light attack craft, which has been termed OA-X, would not replace the A-10 Warthog fleet. Instead, it would be a supplement to the Warthog that would give combatant commanders a low-cost option for battling the violent extremist groups in light of the high operations and maintenance costs associated with the A-10 and various fighter jets currently doing that job.
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This July, reports surfaced about an emerging Air Force proposal that would have the service take a two-pronged approach to conducting close air support (CAS) missions and ultimately replacing the Warthog. Aerospace experts present at a briefing by service officials described a plan where the Air Force would first buy an inexpensive OA-X to compliment the A-10 in low-threat environments. Later, the service would procure an A-X that would replace the Warthog and provide the ability to conduct CAS against more dangerous adversaries in medium-threat environments.
"It comes down a little bit to what do you believe. Do you believe that this war that we're fighting to counter violent extremists is going to last another 15 years?" Holmes said in a Sept. 15 interview. "If you believe it does, and our chief believes it will, then you have to think about keeping a capability that's affordable to operate against those threats so that you're not paying high costs per flying hour to operate F-35s and F-22s to chase around guys in pickup trucks."
The service is also considering pushing back its retirement of the A-10 from 2022 to a later year because of similar concerns about the high cost-per-flight hour of fifth generation fighters, he noted.
Air Force leaders have yet to make a final decision on whether to buy an OA-X or A-X, and the Pentagon and Congress also get a vote, said Holmes, who is nominated to lead Air Combat Command. If confirmed, he would be charged with overseeing the service's fighter and bomber fleets, which include the A-10.
Since the proposal was first made public, however, some top service officials have questioned whether the Air Force would find space in its budget for a two new aircraft.
"Where would we get the money?" asked Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James in July, who had not been briefed on the plan at the time. "Not at all clear to me."
Current Air Combat Command head Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle in August raised questions on whether investing in an OA-X or A-X would be the most effective use of funds.
"If you look at the things within the combat Air Force portfolio that I'm responsible for in modernization and taking care of those systems, I don't know where the money would come from," he said. "And if we got extra money, in my opinion, there's other things that I would do first to increase our combat capability before we go to that platform."
Holmes acknowledged the difficulty of adding another acquisition to its already overstuffed budget. In recent budget cycles, the Air Force has benefited from agreements that added funding above the Budget Control Act spending caps.
"If we go back to a BCA level, we won't be talking about adding new things, we'll be talking about getting rid of things that we're doing, and anything that we do is going to be a tradeoff," he said.
However, the service needs relief from growing operations-and-maintenance costs that are consuming a vast portion of its resources, Holmes said.
"The question is, how do you afford it? The counter question is, how can you not afford it? Or, can you afford not to because of the operating cost difference?" he asked. "Right now, the thing that's growing faster than inflation and eating up space in our budget is operating costs."
As the service readies its fiscal year 2019 budget plans, Holmes wants to collect data that would help James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein decide whether to proceed with an OA-X program of record. One option on the table is a flight demonstration of multiple off-the-shelf airplanes, which could happen as early as spring 2017.
"We may do some experiments where we invite people to come in and show us what their airplanes can do," Holmes said. "If we do an experiment like that, it will be to try to help determine whether there is a portion of the mission that we're doing now that could be done by a less capable, less expensive airplane, and if so, if there are one or more airplanes out there that you could acquire with very little development and send out there to do it?"
"We don't think it would cost a lot of money, and it's designed just to help us get our arms around [questions like], what can you actually do? Does it actually contribute? Can it survive in different threat environments?" he said.
The Textron AirLand Scorpion flies over St. Michael's Mount in the United Kingdom.
Photo Credit: Textron AirLand
If the service prioritizes close air support as the primary mission for the aircraft, its options are limited to planes such as Textron AirLand’s Scorpion jet, Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano or Beechcraft’s AT-6, said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group.
It could also opt for one of the off-the-shelf offerings for the T-X trainer competition such as the Alenia Aermacchi M-346, a variant of which is being proposed by Raytheon and Leonardo.
"You need a high-wing, relatively capable of good low altitude performance, and relatively low speeds, and the 346 would do it," Aboulafia said. Boeing’s clean-sheet T-X design might also have applicability, "but both of them would be significantly inferior to the A-10 for that job."
An M-346 advanced training aircraft.
Photo Credit: Leonardo-Finmeccanica
Another option is light fighter like the FA-50 made by Lockheed Martin and Korea Aerospace Industries, "but that’s not optimized for slow ground attack. It’s like a mini F-16," he said.
Part of the argument in favor for buying an OA-X is that a low-cost, off-the-shelf aircraft would benefit more than just the close air support mission. It provides the cheapest way for the service to improve its capacity and boost readiness against near-peer competitors, Holmes said.
While the service is capable of satisfying demands in the Middle East and doing occasional "theater support package" deployments meant to help bolster enagement with allies, the high operational tempo makes it difficult for airmen to receive enough training to prevail against near-peer adversaries that would operate integrated air defense systems.
"So if I increase my capacity, I could split that rotation up over a larger group, I could give everybody more time to train against a full spectrum threat, and then I could gradually start to increase my readiness," he said.
Having additional planes would also allow the service to train more fighter pilots per year, something Holmes said was vital for increasing the number of flight instructors and building up the command-and-control capability at air operations centers — both of which require experienced aviators.
Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.
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.