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​USAF requests funding for low-cost fighter test

The US Air Force has requested funding for a low-cost fighter experiment in its supplemental budget request, indicating the service is serious about finding a close air support alternative.

During a 23 February speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, USAF chief Gen David Goldfein told the audience the experiment would not cost much money. In January, Goldfein said the USAF would run an experiment in the spring assessing off-the-shelf options to fill a low-end fighter role.

The experiment would continue a previous US Special Operations Command effort known as Combat Dragon II, which demonstrated whether the Vietnam-era OV-10 Bronco could be fielded in counter-insurgency operations over Afghanistan. NASA loaned two North American Rockwell OV-10G+to SOCOM in 2013 and the US Navy outfitted with them with a digital cockpit and laser-guided precision weapons.

Last year, the US Navy also deployed two Broncos as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-effort to combat ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

The spring experiment would use operational data from the initial Combat Dragon II experiment and present it to industry, Goldfein says.

“I’m looking for something I can get right now,” he says. “Commercial, off-the-shelf, low-cost that can operate in an uncontested environment, that can deliver the capabilities that we need, that can also be [used by]... our allies and partners."

"We assume this fight will be going on for some time. There’s room and time for us to get at this,” Goldfein added.

Although the spring experiment would continue Combat Dragon II’s efforts, Goldfein dismissed the idea that the air force would look to the past for inspiration. He joked that during Vietnam, the pilot’s eyes and sometimes binoculars served as the Bronco’s only sensors.

“We’re way beyond that,” he says.

Despite ongoing operations against ISIS using the Bronco, Goldfein’s vision for light-attack appears to target a new, existing aircraft. The USAF has waffled for years on fielding a low-cost, light-attack aircraft optimised for counter-insurgency operations. There’s some value to that concept especially in uncontested areas like Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria, where the US has yet to withdraw forces. But the service has never committed solid funding to push that idea forward.

The USAF has pushed low-cost aircraft onto its partners operating in those regions. The US-based Sierra Nevada company facilitated the sale of Embraer’s Super Tucanos to the Afghan Air Force, which received its first 20 aircraft last year. Ten air forces around the world employ the low and slow Brazilian aircraft, and Lebanon will begin flying the A-29 by 2019.

Meanwhile, there’s a burgeoning light-attack market outside of the US. At IDEX this year, South African company Paramount Group pushed its advanced high-performance reconnaissance light attack aircraft (AHRLAC), the Mwari, which boasts the capabilities of an attack helicopter with a fixed-wing design. US-based IOMAX also showed off its modified Thrush Aircraft S2R-T660 turboprop-turned-attack aircraft, the Archangel. IOMAX is pursuing an airworthiness assessment of IOMAX from the USAF, but that assessment would open Archangel to additional direct commercial sales and not US or foreign military sales customers.

In the age of Trump, Paramount or Embraer, as foreign companies, could face an uphill battle. That leaves the floor open to existing options from American companies, including IOMAX. US-based Textron AirLand's Scorpion, which was not entered in the USAF’s T-X trainer programme, could find new life as a low-cost attack airplane.

Last year, Scorpion demonstrated its close air support capability at Holloman AFB in New Mexico, operating BAE Systems’ Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System and Lockheed Martin’s AGM-114F Hellfire missile. Scorpion is one of several aircraft the USAF will examine during an experiment slated for this spring that will consider low-cost fighter options, Goldfein said last month.

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