USAF Confirms Plans to Buy 6 Light Attack Aircraft under OA-X Program
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USAF Confirms Plans to Buy 6 Light Attack Aircraft under OA-X Program

By IndraStra Global News Team

Image Attribute: Afghan Air Force's A-29 Super Tucano procured under the Light Air Support (LAS) program - between 2008 to 2012.

According to the outgoing United States Secretary of the Air Force — Heather Wilson, the United States Air Force (USAF) has settled on buying six total light attack aircraft from Sierra Nevada Corp (SNC) and Textron Aviation Defense as part of its experimental "off-the-shelf" light attack aircraft program known as OA-X program (evolved from Light Attack/Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR) program). She will be leaving her post at the end of the month to become the president of the University of Texas at El Paso.

On May 16, Secretary Wilson said at Defense Writers Group breakfast, "What we're trying to do by buying three aircraft [to be used] at Nellis [Air Force Base, Nevada] and putting another three at Hulburt [Field, Florida], is creating a place where our allies can come... fly with us, check out the equipment, understand what we're doing."

On May 8, USAF said that it would award a contract to SNC for two to three SNC/Embraer A-29 Super Tucanos and that a second procurement contract, also for two to three aircraft, would be issued to Textron Aviation Defense for AT-6B Wolverine aircraft. USAF Pilots flew both the aircraft in last summer as a live-fly experiment to gather additional information about aircraft capabilities, as well as partner nation interoperability, prior to a potential light attack purchase. The initial six turboprop planes will be used to continue its experimentation program, as the USAF expands its criteria to include jets, drones, helicopters, and others.

In a number of venues during 2018, Secretary Wilson expressed the purpose of a new light attack aircraft as giving the Air Force an ability to free up more sophisticated and expensive assets for other tasks, citing the example of using high-end F-22 jets to destroy a drug laboratory in Afghanistan as an inefficient use of resources. Per-hour operating costs for light attack aircraft are typically about 2%-4% those of advanced fighters — these model typically costs about US$1,000/hour to fly; that’s less than 1/20th of the cost of an F-16, and 1/60th of the flying cost of an F-22 (US$ 70,000/hour).

"It is important to look at the light attack aircraft through the lens of allies and partners," said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein in last year during the release of draft Request for Proposal (RFP). "An interoperable light attack aircraft that delivers common architecture and intelligence-sharing network capabilities will enhance our collective ability to compete, deter and win across all domains."

Timeline of  Light Attack Aircraft Programs

In 2009, the Light Attack/Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR) program was born out of the need for a new close air support aircraft that was suited to the type of combat the United States was facing in post 2003-invasion Iraq and Afghanistan. The close air support role was carried out by several different aircraft, including the A-10 Thunderbolt II, the B-1B Lancer, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, and the F-15E Strike Eagle. While all of these aircraft are capable of close air support, only the A-10 was purpose-built for the type of support needed by ground troops in a "low-intensity conflict," or COIN (COunterINsurgency), operation. 

To solve this problem, the United States Air Force released a Request for Information (RFI) on July 27, 2009, requesting details of a possible Light Attack/Armed Reconnaissance aircraft that could be outfitted to specific requirements and enter into service in 2013. The Air Force planned to acquire approximately 100 aircraft in the initial RFI but has since reduced the initial requirement to 15 aircraft. 

Between 2008 and 2012, the USAF also managed the acquisition of light attack aircraft on behalf of foreign partners under the Light Air Support (LAS) program. Beneficiary air forces — Afghan Air Force (Embraer A-29 Super Tucano) and Iraqi Air Force (T-6A Texan II). But at the domestic front, the LAAR program ultimately got cut from the budget — "ostensibly due to shrinking overall defense spending due to sequestration."

Then, on July 31, 2017, the USAF began the revival of LAAR program by kickstarting the Capability Assessment of Non-Developmental Light Attack Platforms, an “experiment” to determine the utility of an "off-the-shelf" light attack aircraft at Holloman Air Force Base, New MexicoThe capability assessment was all about checking USAF's ability to operate with coalition partners, and to initially evaluate candidate aircraft. The first phase included four aircraft: the SNC/Embraer A-29; Textron/Beechcraft AT-6B; Air Tractor/L3 OA-802 turboprops, variants of which are in service with other. 

On May 7, 2018, the experiment’s second phase began with the A-29 and AT-6B. The flying portion of the program concluded in June 2018.

On August 6, 2018, the U.S. Air Force formally issued a pre-solicitation notice (it can be seen as the formal end of the OA-X experimental phase) declaring its intent to acquire a new type of aircraft.

In December 2018, USAF had planned to issue a formal request for proposals. However, it didn't happen.

On January 18, 2018, USAF announced it was shelving the LAA effort indefinitely.

On March 18, 2019, USAF released 2020 budget documents in which it clearly mentions its plans to buy 24 aircraft over the next five years: 4 aircraft for US$ 160 million in 2022, and 10 aircraft in both 2023 and 2024 for US$ 400 million each year. For prototyping and tests, total US$ 35 million has been allocated for 2020 and US$ 105 million over the future years defense program.

On May 8, 2019, USAF declared its intent to purchase 2 to 3 aircrafts each from Sierra Nevada Corp (SNC) and Textron Aviation Defense for "experimental" purpose. The budget document released in March does not show the USAF’s plan to purchase three SNC/Embraer A-29s and three Textron AT-6Bs using fiscal 2018 and 2019 funds, which would bring the total number procured through 2024 to 30 airframes.

NOTE: In the longer run, OA-X program is envisioned to clear the ways for the USAF to acquire 300 to 350 planes for light attack roles (speculative figure  as the actual number will be depending on the final price tag per aircraft).