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USAF Air Combat Command chief skeptical over new aircraft for permissive environments

US Air Force Air Combat Command chief Gen Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle doubts the need for a new, low-end close air support aircraft when he foresees fewer more contested environments in the future.

During a media briefing announcing initial operational capability for the F-35A, the USAF’s stealth aircraft designed to take on combat zones populated with surface-to-air-missiles, Carlisle expressed skepticism over the possible acquisition of a new light-attack aircraft that would operate in permissive environments.

Over the past month, discussions have swirled within the service around OA-X, the cheap, commercially available aircraft the air force could order as early as next year. The service is examining two fully developed aircraft, Beechcraft’s AT-6 and Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano.

“The idea of a low-end CAS platform that’s being discussed inside the air force, it’s one that I’m struggling with a little bit,” Carlisle says. “Given the evolving threat environment, I sometimes wonder what permissive in the future is going to look like or if there’s going to be any such thing with the proliferation of potential adversaries out there and the threats.”

Carlisle is still weighing whether the low-end CAS aircraft would be a viable plan for future combat operations. Although the air force still flies counter-insurgency missions today in places such as Afghanistan where there is little threat from ground fire, those environments could change if state sponsored terrorists acquire new weapons, he said. Carlisle’s comments echoed Lexington Institute analyst Dan Goure, who recently told FlightGlobal he was unsure of which operating environment the OA-X would fit.

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Robert Farley, a professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky, refutes the idea that light-attack aircraft will not be viable in a future fight. He argues the Taliban in Afghanistan would need clear,state-sponsored funding to procure an anti-air capability and would not be able to secure enough of those weapons on the black market. Farley also notes the USAF is delivering and training Super Tucanos to the Afghan Air Force today.

“The US is supplying Afghanistan with Super Tucanos because we know how useful they’re going to be,” he said. “But it’s not surprising for that to come out with the air force, because the air force thinks that resources spent on CAS are fundamentally misspent [and] that national priorities tend to favour high tech machines like F-35 and Long Range Strike Bomber.”

Even if the OA-X programme does come to fruition, other priorities could push out the aircraft. Following Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James’ recent comments over where funding would come from for the OA-X programme, Carlisle expressed similar concerns on 2 August.

“I don’t know where the money would come from and if we got extra money, in my opinion there’s other things that I would do first to increase our combat capability before I go to that platform right now,” he says. “I think it’s the right thing to do to examine it and that’s what we’re doing right now, but we’re looking at it in that context.”

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