WASHINGTON — At long last, the U.S. Air Force has definitively stated it will not procure light attack planes, putting to bed a three-year-long debate about whether to buy upward of 300 low-cost aircraft for the counterterrorism fight.
In a statement to Defense News, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek confirmed that the service will not move forward with a program of record for light attack planes.
Instead, U.S. Special Operations Command has requested $106 million in the fiscal 2021 defense budget for its armed overwatch requirement, according to Defense Department budget materials. As part of that program, SOCOM is set to acquire as many as 75 light attack aircraft, the command stated in a Feb. 3 solicitation.
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The funding would support “prototype demonstrations and the testing of Special Operation Forces-unique capabilities and air worthiness release efforts” as well as the “procurement of aircraft, mission kits and associated support equipment,” according to the department.
Last year, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein said the Air Force would continue experimenting with light attack aircraft, using funding from FY18 and FY19 to buy a handful of AT-6 Wolverine turboprop planes from Textron and A-29 Super Tucanos from a Sierra Nevada Corp.-Embraer team. Then, in FY22, the service would be ready to decide whether to venture into a program of record, he said.
The Air Force still intends to buy two AT-6s and two A-29s, Stefanek said. However, the scope of their future operations has become more limited as the service opted to not pursue a larger buy.
At Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, “[the] AT-6 will be used for continued experimentation on exportable network/data link capabilities for allies and partners,” said Stefanek, referencing a project under development known as Airborne Extensible Relay Over-Horizon Network, or AEROnet.
“The Air Force has prior year funds available to continue the experiment,” she added.
Meanwhile, U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command pilots will use the A-29s to conduct training at Hurlburt Field, Florida, allowing them to act as instructor pilots and advisers for partner nations that plan to operate the A-29, Stefanek said.
For the past year, Air Force leaders have been sending signals that their interest in buying light attack aircraft was waning. The service originally considered a buy of several hundred planes that would be able to augment pilot absorption and provide a less expensive alternative to using high-cost fighters like the F-15 and F-35 for low-threat strikes against terrorist groups. However, a national defense strategy that prioritizes the fight against near-peer adversaries like Russia and China made it difficult to justify buying an aircraft fleet only survivable in the most uncontested environments.
In contrast, SOCOM has been bullish on light attack capabilities, with its commander, Gen. Richard Clarke, describing it as “a need for SOCOM” and “a need for our nation.”
In the FY20 national defense policy bill, Congress instructed the Air Force to coordinate with SOCOM on light attack capabilities and included an option “to transfer a portion of funds authorized for Air Force light attack aircraft experiments to procure aircraft for supporting the combat air adviser mission of the Special Operations Command.”
While the Air Force seemed most interested in the A-29 and AT-6 as potential light attack platforms, SOCOM appears to want to explore all options. The command is holding an Armed Overwatch industry day March 4-5 to discuss an upcoming demonstration of prototype aircraft.
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.