An A-29 is one of the light attack aircraft candidates. Photos: Ethan Wagner/USAF; A1C Alexis Docherty
Holloman AFB, N.M.—The Air Force will soon test drive commercially developed light attack aircraft, dropping real weapons in real-world combat missions before deciding if it wants—or can afford—to buy the aircraft. The light attack aircraft evaluation is partially an experiment in whether USAF can effectively deliver ordnance in low-threat areas with less sophisticated aircraft. It is also a test to see whether the service can get needed capability more quickly, working with industry to drive down the costs and time lines of acquisition.
“Our adversaries are modernizing faster than we are, and it’s up to the United States Air Force to drive innovation,” service Secretary Heather Wilson said in August at Holloman AFB, N.M. “We have to think about things in new ways and identify new capabilities faster than we’ve done in the past.”
New authorizations for rapid development culminated in the Light Attack Experiment (OA-X) here. Four commercially developed, off-the-shelf aircraft flew for months in the New Mexico desert to see if they could meet Air Force requirements for light attack: flying close air support (CAS) missions in permissive environments.
If deemed successful, some of those aircraft could be deployed to the Middle East next year to fly actual combat missions even before USAF decides if there’s a place for an OA-X in its budget.
“Where that experiment ends is anybody’s guess,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein said at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference in September. USAF would like to get a capability with “very little to no research and development costs,” that’s “very affordable to operate,” and create a program the service could “entice” partners and allies to join.
The push for the Light Attack Experiment has arisen from hard experience in 27 years of combat operations. The service has been flying CAS missions in the US Central Command theater with high-end, expensive-to-operate systems like F-15E Strike Eagles, F-16s, and even B-1B bombers, while facing practically no threat from enemy air defenses.
Heavily employing its limited assets in this way has taxed USAF’s ability to keep its fighter pilots trained and ready for a demanding aerial fight against a near-peer.
At the same time, budget pressures pushed the Air Force to consolidate its force structure around capabilities able to confront the worst-case threat. It reacted by moving to retire the A-10, which has flown much of the CAS mission in Iraq and Afghanistan, because the Warthog is not deemed to be survivable against the sorts of advanced air defenses airmen would see in a possible war against an adversary like Russia or China.
Service officials decided to look at whether the CAS mission could be accomplished more cost effectively than with the 35-year-old A-10 or high-end supersonic jets.
In 2016, Congress came through with new budgetary guidance calling on the Air Force to have some money set aside for new research focused on rapid acquisition.
That authorization—expanded in the 2017 defense authorization bill—came as USAF created its Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office under Air Force Materiel Command.
On March 8, 2017, Goldfein tasked this office to take advantage of the new, limited funding to set up the experiment and answer the question of whether off-the-shelf airplanes could effectively perform the CAS mission in a low-threat battlespace.
“When we took a look across our portfolio, we looked at the light attack as a way to actually do what Congress intended,” Goldfein said in September. As USAF expands its “sharable network,” there’s an opportunity to “look at new ways of doing business,” with the OA-X, he said.
By last August, and with a budget of just $6 million, the Air Force assembled four candidates on the Holloman ramp. They included:
- The Sierra Nevada/Embraer A-29 Super Tucano, already operational with multiple countries, including the Afghan Air Force;
- Textron AirLand’s Scorpion multirole jet, once offered for USAF’s T-X trainer program;
- The AT-802, a militarized crop duster offered by Air Tractor and L-3 Communications; and
- The Hawker Beechcraft AT-6B, an upgraded version of the T-6 Texan II USAF operates as a primary trainer.
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Don’t Call It a Contest
During an open house in August before an audience of scores of senior Air Force officials, industry representatives, and media, Goldfein made a memorable entrance by flying in the AT-6B himself, landing, and then taxiing up to the bleachers before speeches from Holloman leaders.
Although the aircraft came to fly and be evaluated, Air Force officials maintained that this not a competition or a fly-off.
“An experiment. That’s what this is,” Wilson insisted. “We’re trying to learn things.”
Holloman officials set aside a hangar on the north end of the base’s flight line to serve as headquarters for experiment operations. Air Force pilots—not private test pilots—evaluated the aircraft.
The assessment team comprised 16 total aircrew: 12 pilots and four combat systems officers, 10 of them test school graduates. They came from backgrounds including A-10s, F-15Es, F-16s, F-22s, and B-52s, according to Lt. Col. Robert Odom, deputy commander of the 704th Test Group at Holloman, who spoke at the open house.
On the maintenance side were two military crew chiefs, two weapons loaders, and two ammo troops. Thirteen USAF engineers evaluated the aircraft, focusing on aerodynamics and human factors. Six Air Force joint terminal attack controllers coordinated the test missions.
The team was tasked with determining the military utility of the aircraft, Odom said. They were to collect 584 data points across eight operational missions. Each aircraft flew eight surface attack missions: six daytime and two at night. Tasks performed included interdiction and complex close air support.
The aircraft flew with inert weapons, including .50 caliber rounds, laser guided munitions, and unguided dumb bombs.
Throughout the first 100 flights, there were only three sorties lost due to minor maintenance issues.
Before the Holloman phase wrapped up in September, the last event was a simulated mission at an “austere location,” Odom said. Airmen only had the tools that they would see at a forward operating base, this time staging at Cannon AFB, N.M. They had to refuel and reload the aircraft, before launching for strikes at the White Sands Missile Range.
At the end of the Holloman phase, the Air Force pilots and test officials evaluated the aircraft’s characteristics, including visibility and handling, sensor packages, data links, and weapon compatibility, among others. They produced a report on each aircraft. It was submitted to senior Air Force leadership in September. This report was “fruitful” and provided “insightful data,” Air Force spokesman Col. Patrick Ryder said in early October.
Air Force leaders are contemplating how to proceed to the next phase of evaluation—actual combat testing—Gen. Mike Holmes, commander of Air Combat Command, said at the AFA conference.
The Holloman exercises showed that the four entrants can drop weapons accurately, Holmes said, and now the service is determining if “we can integrate that into the system that provides air for US forces” in the Middle East.
Notionally, the combat demonstration will occur sometime in 2018, Holmes said, but there are complications. The Air Force is trying to figure out how to pay for the flights, if the aircraft would be purchased or leased, and if the companies are even willing to proceed. These decisions would possibly be made by December, Ryder said. After the combat evaluation is finished, the service would again determine how the aircraft fared and if an acquisition process should begin.
ACC has identified squadrons and pilots that could be tasked with flying the aircraft, though this is all predecisional planning, Ryder said, and no personnel have been assigned to the task.
Echoes of Vietnam
The OA-X experiment harkens back to similar programs during the Vietnam War. In 1965, the Air Force evaluated the combat use of F-5 fighters, intended for export, over five months.
In 1967 USAF began Operation Combat Dragon to evaluate the A-37 Dragonfly—a souped-up version of the T-37 trainer—for ground support and against enemy supply movements in South Vietnam. The operation logged more than 4,000 sorties without a combat loss at the end of the testing period.
In 2015, upgraded OV-10G Broncos—modernized versions of the light attack aircraft used extensively in Vietnam—deployed to fight as part of Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The aircraft’s six-month deployment was dubbed Combat Dragon II and tested how the aircraft could “find, fix, and finish” targets and improve “coordination between aircrew and ground commanders,” US Central Command officials told Air Force Magazine at the time. Following the deployment, CENTCOM produced a report, not yet released, for the Pentagon’s Joint Requirements Oversight Council.
Lessons learned on that deployment are helping Air Force planners look at how to judge the data obtained from the summer tests at Holloman.
Holmes made news as well by revealing the four-airplane evaluation at Holloman includes consideration of using the aircraft for other missions such as a “light” intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance system.
Textron’s Scorpion has the payload space and cooling capability that could be used to carry sensors, finding targets for less cost than the Air Force’s “flagship, high-altitude” ISR systems such as U-2s and RQ-4 Global Hawks, Holmes noted.
“We wouldn’t restrict it to that airplane—it would be another experiment—but something like the capability that airplane brings,” he said.
The Light Attack Experiment is also being eyed as a way to work more closely with the Air Force’s industrial partners.
“Industry is learning a lot about their airframes and how we think about things,” Wilson said at the Holloman event. “The Air Force used to do a lot of things that way in the ’50s and ’60s, and we are getting back toward that partnership mode.”
While innovation is in the “DNA” of the Air Force, “sometimes, maybe at some points in our history, we have lost that,” she said.
USAF is moving toward a number of other, smaller collaborations with industry. In November the Air Force and US Special Operations Command’s start-up innovation program SOFWERX planned an event called ThunderDrone. This competition was to pit small drones against each other, flying and fighting as a way to prove new unmanned capabilities, such as drone swarming, in what SOFWERX called a “drone test range” in Florida. Academia and industry were invited, with the goal of determining the “last drone standing,” Wilson said.
The Air Force can’t rely on the typically slow process of sending out requirements, doing analyses, spending years figuring out what it wants, and taking 10 years to develop that technology, Wilson said.
“You have to innovate faster; you have to engage industry and the private sector to maintain that edge,” she explained. This extends far beyond the Light Attack Experiment and has sparked a year-long, servicewide review of USAF’s science and technology strategy. The Air Force Research Laboratory, the lead on the study, will travel to a least a dozen research centers to develop a new strategy and look at ways to partner with academia and industry.
Wilson highlighted the Light Attack Experiment as a step in this process, a precursor to how future needs could be addressed to “get capabilities to airmen who need them today and can’t wait two to three years for the normal acquisition process.”
In new programs such as the Light Attack Experiment, the service can’t be afraid to fail, Wilson said. Failure offers an opportunity to learn and apply those lessons to future development and acquisition. At times, a failure could be worth celebrating.
“When we have the first experiment really fail, and we learn from it, I’m buying the cake,” Wilson said. “One of the things we need to get back to as a service is what I call ‘productive failure,’ where you try something [and] you learn from it.”