The US Air Force will officially kick off its low-cost fighter experiment this week, with invitations to industry expected to release 17 March.

The OA-X concept has progressed in fits and starts over at least two decades, but the constrained fiscal environment in Washington, continued counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East and fighter pilot shortfall in the air force has appeared to push the cheap, light-attack option to the service’s acquisition priorities this year. Lt Gen Arnold Bunch, military deputy for the assistant secretary of the air force for acquisition, emphasised the upcoming invitation constitutes an experiment and not a programme of record.

“We do not know how we’re going to proceed after the experiment,” Bunch told air force and industry representatives during a 16 March address in Washington. “We could move forward into a combat demo, we could move forward into another experiment in the CONUS [Continental United States], we could decide that there’s enough out there from industry that we want to start the process to begin an acquisition program but we do not know that today.”

The USAF could also decide to put the experiment on the shelf if industry’s offerings are not mature enough, he adds.

The invitation will detail mission profiles, carriage requirements, mission durations and supply chain requirements, Bunch says. The USAF will also examine offerors’ manufacturing levels to see how quickly a low-cost fighter could be fielded. Buying the light-attack aircraft would not come at the cost of fifth-generation procurement, but would consume an additional budget line, he adds.

While previous OA-X efforts have favored turboprop aircraft, the USAF has not drilled down requirements for specific platforms. The service is seeking an aircraft optimised for an austere environment that can operate off of 6,000ft or shorter runwasy and fly with an average fuel flow of 1,500lb/h or less, Bunch says.

“For light attack, it’s going to be open to anybody,” he says. “But there are selection criteria. I don’t know what the art of the possible is for industry right now, so we’re trying to keep it as broad as we can, industry may have something that’s very innovative that we haven’t thought about.”

The service expects responses from industry within a month and will make a selection for participants to fly this summer at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. That experiment would continue work from a previous US Special Operations Command effort known as Combat Dragon. Combat Dragon I operated low-cost aircraft at Fallon Naval Air Station, Nevada, and its successor Combat Dragon II demonstrated OV-10 Broncos in the Middle East. Like the previous iteration of low-cost aircraft experiments, the Holloman exercise would determine whether the service should transition to a second phase with demonstrations in the Middle East, USAF chief Gen David Goldfein told reporters 3 March at the annual Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida.