After deciding to forgo a combat demonstration, the US Air Force is moving forward with phase two of its light-attack aircraft experiment, which will examine sustainment requirements, networking with allies’ platforms and flying costs of two propeller-driven aircraft: Textron Aviation's Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine and Sierra Nevada/Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano.
Gen David Goldfein, chief of staff of the USAF, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 24 April that the experiments being conducted at Holloman AFB in New Mexico between May and July 2018 would enable the service to get “a better outcome” than doing a combat demonstration and could allow the service to accelerate the programme. The USAF believes it has enough information to move forward with the programme without having to conduct trials overseas, the USAF chief of staff’s office adds.
The air force is interested in buying propeller-driven aircraft for surveillance and light-attack duties as a cheaper alternative to using aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin F-35, Boeing F-15 or Fairchild Republic A-10.
Once relieved of their light-attack duties, more advanced aircraft, which are also more expensive to operate, would be redeployed to counter threats from more capable adversaries; for instance, so-called great power nations like Russia and China.
The cost of operating the AT-6 Wolverine and A-29 Super Tucano are a focus of phase two of the light-attack experiment, said Gen Goldfein in his testimony.
“We are taking a really deep dive on this one on the sustainment aspects: how many maintainers we need; how are we sustainable at home and forward?” he said. “How do we integrate this particular weapons system in ways that allows us to get to a price point … in the $2,000 per flying hour range over time, as opposed to the $20,000, $30,000, $40,000 range, given the fact that we are going to be in this (counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency fight) for a long time?”
Phase two of the light-attack experiment will also focus on the aircraft's abilities to network and operate in coordination with foreign militaries.
“We are looking at this through the lenses of allies and partners because a big part of the light-attack experiment is a common architecture, information [and] intelligence network,” said Gen Goldfein.
The USAF plans to experiment with “building and operating an exportable, shareable, affordable network to enable air platforms to communicate with joint and multi-national forces and command-and-control nodes,” the USAF chief of staff’s office added in an email.
Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said in March 2018 that she may ask Congress to reallocate funds to the light-attack aircraft programme this year, a move which would accelerate the department’s purchase of the aircraft by one year to 2019.
Funding for procurement of the light-attack aircraft is currently scheduled to begin in fiscal year 2020 and there is about $2.5 billion budgeted over the next five years for the programme, according to the Air Force.