ORLANDO, Fla. — The Air Force's light attack aircraft flight demonstration is officially on the books, with an experiment scheduled this summer at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.
For about a year, the Air Force has been deliberating whether it would be cost-effective to buy cheap light attack planes to send to the Middle East to conduct close air support, strikes and low-end missions, thus freeing up more advanced aircraft for training. This event could be the first in a series of demos to determine the business case for a program of record, which has been termed OA-X.
"We're going to formally invite industry to participate," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said Friday. "Bring us what you have that fits the basic criteria of what we're looking for. We call it 'shovel ready.' This is not something we're looking to do a lot of research and development on. This is commercial, off-the-shelf that we can rapidly employ."
A second phase of the experiment would send those aircraft to the Middle East, in very much the same manner as the Combat Dragon II exercise earlier this decade, when two OV-10 Broncos were deployed to Central Command, Goldfein said.
In a speech at the Air Force Association’s air warfare symposium, Acting Air Force Secretary Lisa Disbrow said the experiment will prove whether it makes sense to add money to the budget for a low-price aircraft that could be procured almost immediately to do low-end combat in the Middle East.
"We want to see if there’s a business case there," she said. "This concept could free up higher-cost, higher-performance platforms from doing low-threat missions, which would allow us time to prepare for more complex threats with those assets. It could also help us absorb new pilots and be useful as we work with allies and partners."
Outgoing Air Combat Command chief Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle has questioned whether embarking on an OA-X program would be a wise use of funding, given what he sees as a threat environment that is rapidly becoming less permissive. During a Feb. 25 event, he told reporters that — although there could be come significant operations and maintenance savings by offloading simpler missions to low-end aircraft — those jets may not be effective in the Middle East for very long.
"In an increasing threat environment, even against a violent extremist organization, would it be a viable platform, and would it be the one that could be used at a level that the combatant commanders needed it?" he said. "My concern is, depending on how the OA-X looks like, would it be viable in the environments that we’re going to try to operate it in?"
Carlisle’s replacement, however, might be more bullish on OA-X. Last September, incoming ACC commander Lt. Gen. Holmes — the service’s deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements — discussed the potential flight demonstration and OA-X program with Defense News.
At the time, he declined to comment on whether he would push for a light attack aircraft capability as head of ACC. However, he was supportive of conducting experiments to learn more about whether a light attack aircraft could help save money and improve readiness.
"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 then. "Right now, the thing that's growing faster than inflation and eating up space in our budget is operating costs."
At this point, it’s unclear whether the Air Force will limit its options to inexpensive turboprop airplanes or if a more advanced light fighter could be of interest. Much excitement has surrounded the Textron AirLand Scorpion since it was released on the market. The aircraft hasn’t secured its first order yet, but its low operating and acquisition costs — less than $20 million per unit and $3,000 per flight hour — could make it a good fit for OA-X.
Other low-cost options could include the Beechcraft AT-6 or Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano. If the service considers higher-performing entries, some T-X entrants — particularly Lockheed Martin’s FA-50 or Leonardo’s M-346 — could be other alternatives.