DAYTON, Ohio The Air Force is set to begin building an updated light attack aircraft plan that would incorporate a small number of off-the-shelf aircraft while experimenting with other platforms, the Air Combat Command (ACC) commander said June 19.

ACC will work with Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) to craft recommendations for Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, said the combatant’s commander Gen. Mike Holmes in a media roundtable Wednesday at the Air Force Life Cycle Industry Days conference here. The goal is to submit those recommendations by this fall, he added.

Two Afghan Air Force A-29 Super Tucanos fly over Kabul in 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The service is undergoing several personnel shifts that will affect this plan, Holmes noted. The former Air Force military deputy Gen. Arnold Bunch recently received his fourth star and took the helm of Air Force Materiel Command, while Maj. Gen. Duke Richardson, PEO for presidential aircraft recapitalization, has been nominated to replace him at the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, AFSOC Commander Lt. Gen. Brad Webb has been nominated to replace Lt. Gen. Steve Kwast and lead Air Education and Training (AETC), with AFSOC Vice Commander Lt. Gen. James Slife slated to move up once Webb is confirmed and departs to Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, where AETC is located.

“As we settle those things out, then ACC and AFSOC … will put their heads together,” Holmes said. The commanders will then brief Goldfein on “how we think we might shift that experimentation plan, and then take that to Congress and see if they’ll support us in that broader experimentation.”

The new recommendations will hopefully inform the fiscal year 2021 budget, Holmes added. He noted that “there is a lot of interest” on the light attack experience and how it might fit into the 2018 National Defense Strategy from the Air Force itself, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and also Congress on the light attack experience. “All of that has to be put together,” he added.

Goldfein told lawmakers earlier this year that the Air Force plans to buy a small number of Sierra Nevada Corp. [SNC] and Embraer-made A-29 Super Tucanos and Textron Aviation [TXT] AT-6 Wolverines, both aircraft that have participated in light attack experiments with the Air Force since the effort’s initial experiment in 2017 (Defense Daily, March 13). That was a change from the previous plan to submit a request for proposals earlier this year to procure one of those two aircraft. Air Force officials have expressed a desire to conduct further experiments with other platforms, such as drones, to see which assets would best fit the missions laid out in the National Defense Strategy.

Congress has expressed its interest in the light attack effort in the three FY ’20 defense-related bills that have been released thus far.

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s (SASC) FY ’20 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) language, released June 14, included an additional $50 million in research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) funds on top of the Air Force’s requested $35 million, for a total of $85 million authorized. The language noted that the committee supports increasing combat capability and readiness at a reduced cost, and the Defense Department’s goal to lower the cost of countering violent extremism with off-the-shelf light attack aircraft for close-air support.

A Textron AT-6 Wolverine turboprop aircraft.

However, “the committee is concerned that the pace of research and prototyping in this area has not kept pace with the threat or the current capability available to the Department,” the bill report said, adding, “The committee believes that the Department of Defense has been slow to develop and field capabilities to provide battlefield situational awareness of enemy and friendly actors … [and] is also aware of current technical solutions that would provide the required identification of friend and foe” in permissive environments.”

The committee also directed the Air Force secretary to deliver a briefing by March 30, 2020 that would inform congressional defense committees on the progress of the light attack experiment and the feasibility of procuring platforms that would reach initial operating capability by 2023. The report language also asks for the service secretary to direct military type certification for the A-29 and AT_6 aircraft.

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC)’s mark of the FY ’20 NDAA authorized the $35 million requested by the Air Force, but also requested a report to Congress that outlines the next steps of the light attack experiment (Defense Daily, June 10).

House appropriators were overall supportive of the light attack experiment when they voted to move their committee’s defense spending bill to the House floor in May, but expressed concern about the Air Force backtracking on prior plans to procure more than six aircraft (Defense Daily, May 22). The Senate Appropriations Committee has not yet released its draft defense spending bill for fiscal year 2020.