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​Air Force mulls low-end fighter experiment

As Textron Aviation eyes the US Air Force’s lucrative T-X trainer competition, its dual light-attack fighter and trainer Scorpion aircraft could remain in the running for a low-end fighter role in the USAF.

Scorpion is one of several aircraft the USAF will examine during an experiment slated for this spring that will consider low-cost fighter options, USAF chief Gen David Goldfein told an audience at a Washington think tank 18 January. The experiment is not a competition and the service has not issued a request for information, Goldfein adds.

“Right now we’re running an experiment where we go out to industry and say what do you have that’s commercial off the shelf, low cost that can perform this mission,” he says. “We’re going to do this experiment and see what’s out there, and I’m expecting many of the companies to come forward.”

Over the past year, the air force has thrown around the idea of procuring a low-end close air support aircraft designed for permissive environments, dubbed OA-X. The service has discussed ordering a cheap, commercially available aircraft as early as next year and was examining two fully developed aircraft, Beechcraft’s AT-6 and Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano. But service heads are split on the idea of buying additional aircraft to fight in permissive battles. In August, the USAF’s chief of air combat command doubted the need for a low-end fighter when he foresees threats growing in anti-access area denial environments.

In a 18 January defense budget recommendation white paper, Senate Armed Services Chairman Senator John McCain called the USAF to buy 300 low-cost, light-attack fighters requiring minimal development. McCain recommended the service buy the first 200 of these aircraft, which would perform CAS and other missions in permissive environments, by fiscal year 2022 in addition to continued A-10 sustainment.

Goldfein called McCain’s proposal a “great idea,” saying the air force must sustain readiness for both high and low-end campaigns. OA-X could also provide a cheaper option for allies who need to fill a CAS mission in permissive areas such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, which may not require an exquisite F-22 or F-35, Goldfein’s spokesman adds.

“We’ve got to look at new ways of doing business in the future,” Goldfein says. “One of the new ways is absolutely spot on in this paper is … there a more sustainable model for the future that would be less costly that I could entice foreign partners, that could reduce the overall cost and would also contribute to raising the readiness.”

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