USAF Says Spec Ops Light Attack Program Will Complement Larger OA-X Effort

Weapons and equipment from separate special operations tests could end up in a future joint light attack fleet.

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The U.S. Air Force has clarified that its ongoing light attack experiment and a separate project it is working on together with U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) are focusing on separate aspects of the light aerial attack mission set. Though they are distinct programs, it seems very possible that they may ultimately turn out to be complementary rather than competitive efforts as we originally thought.

On July 31, 2017, the Air Force had kicked off its much awaited light attack evaluation, commonly known as OA-X and more formally referred to as the Capability Assessment of Non-Developmental Light Attack Platforms, or Combat Dragon III. The four participating aircraft are Sierra Nevada Corporation and Embraer's A-29 Super Tucano, Textron's AT-6 Wolverine and jet-powered Scorpion, and Air Tractor and L-3's OA-802. Just days before the assessment began, the service had also announced it would be working on a program with SOCOM called Light Attack Support for Special Operations (LASSO).

“USSOCOM is not seeking to develop its own light attack aircraft,” Brian Brackens, an Air Force spokesman at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, told The War Zone in an Email. “Light attack support for special ops represents a series of capability assessments that are complementary to the USAF light attack experiment.”

Wright-Patterson is home of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, which is managing the LASSO project. The service is conducting the OA-X tests out at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.

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A pair of Afghan Air Force A-29 Super Tucanos.

“The light attack experiment focuses on the light attack platform,” Brackens continued. “Light attack support for special ops focuses on platform agnostic capabilities (i.e. sensors, munitions & mission systems) that may be compatible with any light attack platform.”

We at The War Zone have already discussed in detail the kind of weapons and equipment special operators might want to integrate onto a future light attack aircraft. With this new information, it would appear that SOCOM has keen interest in the outcome of the OA-X evaluations, but has its own set of broad requirements that are distinct from the Air Force’s own parameters. This is perhaps not surprising given what we know about the Air Force’s own goals for its light attack experiment.

Though the service has been tight-lipped about what it wants to get out of the assessment, it did confirm to FlightGlobal on Aug. 4, 2017 that it had effectively set aside its core requirements in order to include more participants. The original plan had seven key criteria for any aircraft participating in the OA-X assessment, including an ejection seat and the ability to employ laser-guided Paveway II-series bombs and Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) II rockets.

“USSOCOM envisions a Special Operations Force (SOF) peculiar capability supporting globally deployed ground forces,” Brackens explained. “This capability will be essential in areas where traditional Combat Air Force aircraft are in high demand and may be incapable of supporting a small ground SOF element.”

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Air Tractor and L-3's OA-802 Longsword.

This makes perfect sense since light attack aircraft are ideally suited to the kind of small, discreet missions American special operators often find themselves call upon to perform. These operations often target insurgents and terrorists with limited anti-aircraft capabilities, but in remote areas where friendly support might be limited.

Unlike a high performance combat aircraft, a light attack plane could operate from airstrips with limited infrastructure closer to the front lines, making them more responsive and giving pilots more time to loiter over the target area. On top of that, the smaller planes would be cheaper to fly and easier to maintain under those conditions, all while freeing up multi-role fighter jets for higher risk missions.

Whether or not LASSO is directly looking for a SOCOM-specific light attack plane or not, the U.S. special operations forces have a long-standing and clear requirement for this kind of aircraft. They have been the primary drivers of many recent similar projects, including the Combat Dragon II field test that sent two highly modified OV-10G+ Broncos, which the Navy had borrowed from NASA, to fight ISIS in Iraq in 2015.

I had already suggested that the Air Force might be inclined to partner up with other services on such a project after Senate revealed its desire to add $1.2 billion for “a fleet of Light Attack/Observation aircraft” into the annual defense budget for the 2018 fiscal year without any formal acquisition program already in place. Specifically, I wrote:

A joint Air Force-Navy-Marine Corps OA-X program might actually make the most sense in both the short and long terms. It would help share the burden of paying and manning the resulting units and give the Air Force space to develop plans to absorb its share of the aircraft. At the same time, the Marines could leverage the Air Force’s own experience working with these types of aircraft in cooperation with Afghanistan and Lebanon, which includes both pilot training and managing logistics chains.

The same logic would apply to the partnership with SOCOM, perhaps even more so than with conventional forces in other services. By separating its technological requirements from any other light attack program, SOCOM can take whatever systems it plans to test and install them on any aircraft it wants or otherwise has access to first without needing to wait for the results of OA-X, too. 

Earlier in 2017, the Air Force's 492nd Special Operations Wing, previously known as the Air Force Special Operations Air Warfare Center, announced it was interested in possibly leasing a single AC-208 Combat Caravan to train its personnel on the kind of light surveillance and precision strike aircraft they might encounter on advisory missions with allied air arms. This would be a good platform to test light attack technology, as well.

In addition, increasingly popular modular aircraft and stores designs could only help American personnel move sensors and weapons quickly between different types of planes for both testing and operational purposes. All of this would speed up the introduction of a special operations-specific version of any such aircraft the Air Force ultimately decides to buy. The service could leverage those developments for any aircraft its fields to conventional units, as well.

In the end, we may very well see a fleet of light attackers in the future flying with various conventional and special operations units that combine an airframe the Air Force selected with SOCOM-sponsored weapons and equipment.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com