The US Air Force is considering two new procurements to boost their close air support mission, including an off-the-shelf option for permissive environments and a cheap, clean sheet design aircraft that would replace the Fairchild Republic A-10.
In a recent briefing, air force officials laid out their plan for the light-attack OA-X and the A-X2, a short-term replacement for the A-10. The service is looking at an initial order of about 20 aircraft for the OA-X mission a early as next year, with serious procurement launching in Fiscal 2018, Dan Goure, an analyst at the Lexington Institute, tells FlightGlobal. To meet that rapid need, the service is examining two fully developed aircraft, Beechcraft’s AT-6 and Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano, and are planning a “fly off” for this fall.
The air force has excluded Textron AirLand’s Scorpion, a dual light attack fighter and trainer aircraft still in its development phase, as an option for OA-X.
“They want them out the door as fast as possible,” Goure said. “They’ve got reasonable data on the cost of sustainment for A-29 and even AT-6, my understanding is they don’t have that kind of data when it comes to Scorpion.”
With the revelation of the two possible acquisitions, the USAF also quashed discussions of using the T-X trainer to fulfill a close air support role, according to Lexington Institute chief operating officer Loren Thompson. The service does not want to see the trainer program diluted to support other missions, he says.
“They clearly intend to buy these two planes in addition to the trainer,” he adds.
Rather than create an expensive platform to operate in an anti-access area denial environment, OA-X would fly a counter-terrorism mission in areas such as Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan. The service is looking for a medium-altitude aircraft with some level of precision strike capability, such as the BAE Systems Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System laser-guided rocket, Goure said.
The US Air Force is already delivering Super Tucanos, which are equipped with internal 50-cal guns and 250lb laser-guided bombs, for the Afghan Air Force.
The OA-X concept is not far off from an older USAF light-attack, reconnaissance aircraft, the OV-10 Bronco, which flew counter-insurgency missions in Vietnam. But whether an airspace exists today that is neither fully permissive nor requires a complex, 4th-generation aircraft is a question that still perplexes Goure.
“They weren’t clear on what that slice was,” Goure said. “Maybe it’s not counter-terrorism but it’s not fully integrated air defense. That’s a real question of where does it fit in terms of an operating concept.”
With AX-2, the air force is aiming for a faster, cheaper acquisition approach that could field an aircraft within five years, he said. The aircraft would be designed for a 20-year lifetime and would forego long-term costs such as a service-life extension programme.
But New Hampshire Sen Kelly Ayotte, a Republican serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has expressed skepticism over whether the A-10 replacement could be fielded in time for the legacy aircraft’s divestment. Although Ayotte does not hold an A-10 base in her state, she has pushed against the aircraft’s retirement alongside Republican Sen John McCain of Arizona, who chairs the committee.
“The Air Force should not expect support in Congress for the divestment of the A-10 until a replacement reaches full operational capability and the Air Force proves that the new aircraft can provide our soldiers, special operators, and [Joint Terminal Attack Controllers] equally effective close air support,” Ayotte’s office said in a 22 July email to FlightGlobal. “I will not support the premature divestment of the A-10 that will create a close air support capability gap and put the lives of our troops in additional danger.”