The Air Force plans to release an “invitation to participate” to industry Friday for an experiment that could lead to a new light attack aircraft. Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch Jr., USAF’s top uniformed acquisition chief, emphasized at an AFA-sponsored breakfast Thursday that the evaluation of off-the-shelf candidates is not yet a program and there is no plan for what happens after the experiment. “Let me be clear about this,” Bunch said at the Arlington, Va., event, “moving in this direction would be additive to what the Air Force has dollars … and manpower for today. It would not be something we would do at the expense of our modernization efforts.” Bunch said the basic need is for an aircraft that can operate off a 6,000-foot or shorter runway and have an average fuel flow of under 1,500 pounds per hour. That’s to ensure both the ability to operate “at an austere location” and drive down operating costs. The idea behind OA-X is twofold, he said. One is to substitute for and “reduce wear and tear” on 4th and 5th-generation jets, which could then concentrate on training for “high end” combat operations, “where we’ve taken risk before,” Bunch said. The other is, “we need to absorb fighter pilots,” Bunch asserted. “We need to bring them into the field and into platforms that are relevant, so they can be seasoned and we can … address our fighter pilot shortfall.” The invitation will also discuss mission profiles, carriage requirements, mission durations, supportability, the supply chain and whether the aircraft is ready to enter production with minimal revision. The Air Force wants responses to the invitation “within a month.” The service will then evaluate the proposals, pick the participants and fly them during an experiment “this summer” at Holloman AFB, N.M. Bunch again emphasized that the program is an experiment and not a program of record. “I need everybody to show me what they can do before I go further,” he explained. Acting Air Force Secretary Lisa Disbrow said at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium at the beginning of the month that USAF wants to see “the business case” for OA-X before proceeding. The service thinks that if acquisition and operating costs are low enough, it could substantially reduce the cost of operations in places like Afghanistan and other “permissive” environments, she said.
The Air Force overall reduced its size by 120 aircraft in fiscal year 2021, but kept about the same number of fighter, bomber and attack aircraft, according to data supplied by the service. The F-35 fleet saw the biggest increase while the B-1B bomber fleet saw the largest decline.