On June 28, 2017, days ahead of the July 2017 U.S. Air Force light attack aircraft experiment, the Senate Armed Services Committee passed a preliminary vote for a proposed annual defense budget that included $1.2 billion for “a fleet of Light Attack/Observation aircraft.” The event, officially called “the OA-X Capability Assessment of Non-Developmental Light Attack Platforms” will take place at Holloman Air Force Base, NM. In a nutshell, the USAF will be assessing off-the-shelf options to potentially fill a low-end fighter role.
Although the budget did not outline how many airframes would be purchased or for which branch they would be purchased for; it clears the way for funding whichever aircraft prevails in the upcoming OA-X trails. While the budget also left out aircraft performance requirements, several requirements have already been outlined by OA-X organizers. Participating aircraft are required to be off-the-shelf, low-cost, and 90% available for day and night operations. They must also be able to fly 900 hours per year for 10 years, take off on 6000 ft runways, and burn fuel at a maximum of 1500 lb/hr over 2.5 hrs. Finally, aircraft survivability will be evaluated by infrared and visual signatures.
The current OA-X contenders include at least three different aircraft: the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) and Embraer Defense & Security A-29 Super Tucano, the Textron Aviation AT-6 Wolverine, and the Textron Scorpion.
The Embraer A-29 Super Tucano—previously chosen by the USAF for the 2013 Light Air Support program to equip the Afghan Air Force—is a light attack and counter-insurgency aircraft developed for close air support, aerial reconnaissance, and pilot training. It utilizes a Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-68C turboprop engine and was designed to operate in high temperature and humidity and in rugged terrain.
Textron’s AT-6 Wolverine, based off of the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II, like the A-29, is purpose built for light attack, armed reconnaissance, and counter insurgency missions. Similarly, it is powered by a P&WC PT6A-68D. However, the USAF already has a large fleet of T-6A Texan II trainers, which share many of the same components as the AT-6.
Textron is also bringing the Scorpion jet to OA-X. The Scorpion was designed and developed in-house by Textron AirLand—a joint venture between Textron and AirLand Enterprises. It is the only aircraft of the three to utilize turbofan engines (and multiple engines at that), with two Honeywell TFE731 turbofans; however, it’s per hour flight cost is relatively close to the $2200 per hour cost of the AT-6. The aircraft is also competing for the USAF T-X trainer program. This June, Textron has been leaning into the OA-X test by demonstrating 20-mm cannon at U.S. Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. Since the Scorpion is previously unproven, Textron has entered into a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) that would grant the jet an airworthiness assessment.
Other potential competitors may demonstrate capabilities at a later date, many of which include other T-X program competitors. Some of potential future OA-X candidates include the Iomax Archangel, L3 Technologies OA-8 Longsword, KAI KT-1 Woongbi, TAI Hürkuş-C, FMA IA 58 Pucará, and AHRLAC/Paramount Mwari for turboprop aircraft; and the Leonardo M-346F Master, BAE Systems Hawk, Boeing OV-10X Bronco, Boeing/Saab T-X, Lockheed Martin/KAI T-50, and Scaled Composites ARES for turbofan aircraft.
The current OA-X program is receiving interest and a potential budget and may possibly lead to the acquisition of actual aircraft; however, the program—now on its second iteration from the 2009 Light Attack/Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR) program—failed to result in a request for proposals.
But the OA-X program does aim to remedy the USAF’s current airframe gap between the aging Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II ($17,000 per flight hour), which serves close air support roles, and fourth- and figth-generation aircraft like the Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle ($27,000 per flight hour) or the Lockheed Martin F-35A Joint Strike Fighter ($42,000 per flight hour).
Beyond the cost per flight hour for those aircraft, missions tax lifespans of those aircraft that possess capabilities far beyond attacking lightly armed and armored insurgent targets. Aircraft participating in the OA-X tests might be able to perform the same mission for $20,000 to $40,000 less, will cost significantly less to acquire and maintain, and will extend service lives of other combat aircraft. They may also double as fighter pilot training platforms to accelerate combat training.
Embraer is angling their A-29 pitch with that in mind. “The A-29 is uniquely suited for training and seasoning fighter pilots,” Jackson Schneider, President and CEO of Embraer Defense & Security said in a statement. “This means more highly-trained pilots more quickly and less expensively, while allowing other platforms to do the work they do best.”
Additionally, the A-29 already possesses military type certification.
The USAF has not yet given any clear goal for the OA-X tests or any solution for how it would integrate a selected airframe into existing forces. The project is “is not a procurement, it's an experiment,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said during a talk at the Air Force Association Forum in Washington, D.C. on June 5, 2017. However, a defense budget with funding for a light attack aircraft fleet may be the precursor event for a clear procurement plan—barring a repeat of the LAAR program.
On one side, the USAF is still in the process of purchasing the F-35 and the Boeing KC-46 Pegasus tanker, developing the B-21 Raider bomber, selecting a new T-X jet trainer, and beginning work on designing a new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). On the other, an OA-X could partially replace and/or extend the lifespan of the venerable A-10, cut operational and maintenance costs, and facilitate combat seasoning of USAF pilots.