The second phase of an experiment that began on 7 May with two light attack fighters can allow the US Air Force to bypass several steps in the acquisition process, a top USAF general says.

The Sierra Nevada/Embraer A-29 Super Tucano and Textron Aviation AT-6 Wolverine began an open-ended series of experiments at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, which are focused on answering questions about how to sustain such aircraft and connect them with battlefield networks, says Lt Gen Jerry Harris, deputy chief of staff for requirements, speaking at the Mitchell Institute on 7 May.

Both aircraft also participated in the first phase of the experiment last summer, along with Textron Aviation’s Scorpion and armed conversions of agricultural spraying aircraft. The USAF narrowed the participants in the second phase by inviting only the two types already in production on US military contracts.

The USAF normally buys new combat aircraft using the military’s traditional procurement process. That system begins with an at least year-long analysis of alternatives. Once a path is chosen, the USAF usually must begin a technology maturity phase involving at least two competitors, funding both of them to a preliminary design review. At that point, the USAF stages a competition for the full-scale development contract.

It’s a process that often takes 10-15 years to lead to an operational capability, and that’s considered too long for fielding a light attack requirement, Harris says. Instead of waiting to the middle of the next decade, the USAF wants to reach a point where it can make an acquisition sooner.

So far, the USAF has not committed to following through with a production contract after the light attack experimental phase is over, and Harris said the service remains undecided. But the USAF also has reserved more than $2 billion over the next six years to pay for a new light attack fleet if production is approved, he says.

The light attack mission is only new aircraft type using the experimental process. The USAF also mentioned the possibility of funding a follow-on programme for a light intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) fleet.

However, Harris says, any light ISR capability could be acquired as an additional mission set for the light attack fleet.