Let's Face It, The USAF Isn't Serious About Buying a Light Attack Aircraft

The service says it somehow still needs more information, despite a decade of studies, evaluations, and other experiments with the concept.

Textron

The U.S. Air Force has announced details about the next phase of its light attack aircraft experiment, also known as OA-X, which will consist of more tests of Textron’s AT-6 Wolverine and Sierra Nevada Corporation and Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano. This will be at least the sixth such evaluation of one or both aircraft the U.S. military has conducted since 2007, which continues to beg the question about whether the service is actually interested in either of these planes for its own use.

The U.S. Air Force made the announcement on Feb. 2, 2018, saying it was necessary to gather more data on training, maintenance, and logistics requirements for a new light attack platform. The latest experiments would also explore potential mission systems for such an aircraft, including weapons, sensors, and communications equipment. Lastly, the service says it wants to investigate more about how it might integrate the planes into its existing force structure and how they might work together with other U.S. services, as well as allied or partner forces, as part of a larger coalition effort. The tests will occur at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona between May and July 2018.

“Rather than do a combat demonstration, we have decided to work closely with industry to experiment with maintenance, data networking and sensors with the two most promising light attack aircraft – the AT-6 Wolverine and the A-29 Super Tucano,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said, according to the Air Force’s release. “This will let us gather the data needed for a rapid procurement.”

“This effort to find a lower-cost and exportable aircraft for permissive environments is directly in line with the National Defense Strategy,” U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein added. “A light attack aircraft would not only provide relief to our fouth and fifth generation aircraft, but also bolster our interoperability, so we can more effectively employ airpower as an international team.”

USAF

A Dominican Republic A-29 Super Tucano during a training exercise in the United States.

Goldfein’s point about the need for a cost-effective alternative to expensive fourth and fifth generation fighter bombers in low threat environments is entirely true, as we at The War Zone have noted repeatedly. But that requirement is also immediate, long-standing, well established, and something the Air Force and its sister services have already studied in depth over the past decade.

Beginning in 2007, the U.S. Navy evaluated an Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano in the light strike and forward air control roles, particularly with an eye toward offering an organic capability to special operations forces units as part of project known as Imminent Fury. The Brazilian plane maker, in cooperation with American firm Sierra Nevada Corporation, has since rebranded that plane as the A-29, in line with its official U.S. military designation.  

The next year, a team at Air Combat Command (ACC), drafted the first OA-X concept document, outlining a similar requirement. This subsequently evolved into two separate programs, Light Air Support (LAS) project for foreign partners and the Light Attack/Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR) for the Air Force’s own use. In seeking an appropriate plane for both of those requirements, the service tested both the AT-6 and the Super Tucano, choosing the latter and formally giving it the A-29 moniker, a saga you can read about here. Though the service subsequently cancelled the LAAR requirement, Air Force crews assigned to the 81st Fighter Squadron at Moody Air Force Base have been actually flying A-29s to train foreign pilots on the light attack aircraft since 2014. 

Starting in 2010, the U.S. Air National Guard also explored the possibility of flying the AT-6 in the light attack role. For those tests, Textron and the Air Force worked to integrate various systems found on A-10 Warthog ground attack aircraft into the smaller aircraft, with the idea that it would make it easier for those pilots to transition to the new plane.

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A pilot from the Air Force's 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron exits an AT-6 aircraft after a flight during an Air National Guard-sponsored program in 2010.

Most recently, the Air Force put the AT-6 and A-29 through the paces again in a series of tests at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico in 2017. That event also featured L-3's AT-802L Longsword, a derivative of an agricultural aircraft, and Textron’s Scorpion light jet.

And those six instances are just the times in the last decade the U.S. military has specifically tested the AT-6 and A-29. It does not count a United States-based test program that U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) led using a pair of heavily modified OV-10 Bronco aircraft on loan from NASA, a combat evaluation in Iraq involving those same planes, evaluations of armed Cessna C-208 Caravans for American and allied use, or the Air Force-supported development of modified crop dusters for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and light attack missions, all in the same time frame. SOCOM is also in the midst of its own complimentary program, called Light Attack Support Special Operations, or LASSO.

The combat evaluation with the Broncos showed the underlying concept could be extremely effective in a real world setting, both in terms of mission performance and cost. The pair of aircraft used laser guided rockets to launch precision attacks against terrorists in the dead of night and required such a small logistical footprint that it was easy to self-deploy from one austere operating location to another as necessary. Radios onboard could locate particular targets and using their off-the-shelf infrared sensors, the Broncos became man hunters, sniping individual combatants standing in windows and doors with their laser-guided rockets. 

It's extremely hard to believe that the Air Force does not already have a trove of data on the AT-6 and A-29, and about light attack aircraft as a broad concept, that hits on all of the areas it says are in need of further study. That’s not to say anything of the information it could seek from the Navy or SOCOM in order to speed up the “rapid procurement” Secretary Wilson says she desires. If this information somehow does not exist, that raises serious questions about the value of the numerous previous tests and evaluations.

Nick Thomas

One of the two OV-10G+ Broncos that SOCOM evaluated as part of a light attack aircraft program.

Even if there is still somehow test data left to collect, that wouldn't have precluded already having a official procurement program in the works, especially if the Air Force was truly eager to get the aircraft into inventory as soon as possible. 265 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters have already been delivered, many of which belong to the USAF, and the service is buying more despite the fact that the aircraft has not yet even begun its operational test and evaluation phase, let alone flown any actual combat missions.

As such, we at The War Zone had already questioned the rationale for both the Holloman experiments and the now-canceled overseas combat evaluation based on this existing history. At the same time, we noted that there was a heavy emphasis on foreign sales, which the Air Force has reiterated is an important consideration for this project.

Government representatives from Australia, Canada, Paraguay, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as an unnamed fifth nation, were present during the events in New Mexico. The Air Force says it will invite more international partners to attend this second phase at Davis-Monthan.

It’s not clear why the Air Force would need to spend additional time investigating a new “exportable aircraft” as Chief of Staff General Goldfein calls it, either. The United States does not seem to have any problem facilitating the delivery of American-made or partially American-made light attack aircraft to its allies and partners, including the A-29 itself.

Just in 2017, the United States approved the potential sales of L-3’s AT-802L Longsword armed crop duster to Kenya and A-29s to Nigeria. It also announced plans to help deliver the latest iteration of Orbital ATK’s armed C-208 conversion, known as the AC-208 Eliminator, to Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia also tested Textron’s Scorpion, which it could seek to buy with the help of the American government.

DOD

An Iraqi Air Force AC-208.

Afghanistan and Lebanon already operate A-29s thanks to U.S. government assistance. Iraq and Lebanon have older versions of the AC-208 they received through American military assistance programs.

And don't forget, the A-29 is an aircraft the Air Force already flies, as well as trains pilots and ground crews to operate and maintain. In spite of all this, senior Air Force officials such as Wilson and Goldfein insist that there is still more data to gather before their service can move forward with just developing a possible plan to buy any aircraft buying actual aircraft.

"The Air Force is gathering enough decision-quality data through experimentation to support rigorous light attack aircraft assessments along with rapid procurement/fielding program feasibility reviews,” U.S. Air Force spokesperson Captain Emily Grabowski told Defense News. “We’re finalizing requirements documentation and developing an acquisition strategy.”

Going through the process developing requirements documentation isn’t a guarantor of anything, either. The Air Force has similar broad specifications for a notional replacement for the A-10 Warthog ground attack aircraft, which we at The War Zone previously revealed are wallowing in a bureaucratic gray area.

The same goes for a formal acquisition strategy. The service included funding for the LAAR program in a number of budget proposals, as well, but those aircraft never materialized.

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US Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein, in green, shakes hands with Secretary of the AIr Force Heather Wilson during the OA-X experiment at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico in 2017.

It is true that there was money in the defense budget for the 2018 fiscal year specifically set aside for light attack aircraft, but it’s important to remember that it was put there by advocates in Congress and was not in response to an actual Air Force request. It’s not even clear where the funding for this latest round of experiments will come from.

“We are working a cost estimate for the next phase of experimentation, but we need to work with our industry partners to finalize the cost estimate,” Grabowski added in her statement to Defense News. “At this time, we expect to use current experimentation funding for the stateside experiment.”

With all this in mind, it’s important to remember that the Air Force is also proceeding with its revamped second round of OA-X testing without releasing the results of the initial experiment, or producing an unclassified summary thereof. All of this continues to call into question the Air Force’s interest in and commitment to the program, despite the assurances from senior officials such as Wilson and Goldfein that the service is pushing ahead toward buying actual aircraft.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com