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  • OPINION: USAF light-attack plans give cause for optimism

OPINION: USAF light-attack plans give cause for optimism

Hard and bitter experience entitles the small but vocal community of advocates for buying cheap turboprop-powered attack aircraft to be sceptical, but their time may have finally come.

The US Air Force actually seems serious about buying several squadrons of either Sierra Nevada/Embraer A-29s or Beechcraft AT-6s from Textron Aviation.

True, the acquisition notice released by the Air Force Materiel Command on 3 August is only a formality. It notifies other aspiring bidders that the USAF intends to restrict a competition for a Light Attack Aircraft contract to only the A-29 or AT-6, as the US government’s acquisition laws require. It does not commit the USAF to follow-through with a signed contract by the end of 2019.

But the USAF cannot proceed to launch the competition later this year and award the LAA contract in 2019 without passing that critical notification step in the acquisition process.

It is the first concrete sign of the USAF’s commitment to the LAA programme since its civilian leader, Heather Wilson, told journalists last February that the Fiscal 2019 budget request submitted to Congress includes a $2.4 billion “placeholder” for a light-attack acquisition programme.

The notice also comes two months after an A-29 was involved in a fatal crash during the service's second round of flight demonstrations, which also involved the AT-6. It was an incident that - cue the hard-bitten sceptics - could have allowed the air force to abandon the LAA programme, if that is what the leadership truly wanted.

More likely, the USAF has grasped onto the LAA as a critical piece of future airpower strategy. It is an acknowledgement that the American military will remain involved in operations like the ongoing presence of US special forces in Niger. Nothing about that operation dictates the deployment of a 40-year-old Lockheed Martin F-16 - let alone a brand-new, $94 million F-35A. But it is an ideal operation to support with an inexpensive and — against an opponent armed mainly with small arms - effective platform, such as an AT-6 or A-29.

Of course, that is exactly why the USAF first considered buying about 200 light-attack aircraft in 2008. But when the Air Combat Command delivered a $4.2 billion cost estimate, headquarters baulked at the bill.

So the programme could still face roadblocks. Congress has yet to pass the appropriations needed to launch the programme. The Pentagon is always susceptible to the influence of powerful special interests - and few are more potent than the F-35’s internal constituencies.

But the USAF has never come this far before, and that alone is reason for optimism about LAA.

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