Despite questions about its future, the Air Force’s light attack experiment is slated to continue as the service plans to procure about six turboprop aircraft in fiscal year 2020 while opening up the experiment to more platforms over the next few years, senior service officials said March 13.
The service plans to procure “a small number” of light attack aircraft from an Embraer and Sierra Nevada Corp. [SNC] team and from Textron Aviation [TXT] and begin training with them at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada and Hulbert Field in Florida, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said at the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing Wednesday. The service will use leftover funds from fiscal years 2018 and 2019 and new money in the FY ’20 budget to procure those aircraft, he said.
Meanwhile, the Air Force will continue the light attack experiment using other transaction authorities and broaden the aperture to include unmanned aircraft, fixed-wing and other platforms, with the goal of procuring another platform in the FY ’22-FY ’24 timeframe, he added.
“What you’ll see in this budget is money that we are going to use to procure a small number of aircraft from the two companies that have been with us so far,” Goldfein said. The Air Force has been testing Textron’s AT-6 Wolverine and Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano since 2016 for use as an off-the-shelf light attack and close-air support aircraft for use in permissive environments.
The service will place detachments performing “conventional” training at Nellis and “unconventional” training at Air Force Special Operations Command’s headquarters at Hurlbert Field. The Marine Corps has committed to participating in the experiment and global allies are invited to attend, Goldfein added.
The Air Force included $35 million in research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) funds in the FY ’20 budget request to put toward the light attack experiment, said Air Force Press Officer Capt. Hope Cronin in an email Wednesday.
What’s more, the service has retained about $60 million in FY ’18 RDT&E funds and $100 million in FY ’19 procurement dollars that Congress has previously appropriated for light attack experimentation so far, and plans to use those funds to purchase “two or three of each aircraft,” Cronin said.
In the meantime, more experimentation will occur to build an “interoperable network” and develop additional capabilities that could lead to a “smarter acquisition decision” in the 2022-2024 timeframe. The Air Force has identified $400 million to procure new platforms in the FY ’22-FY ‘24 timeframe, Goldfein said.
SAC-D Member Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) called on the Air Force leaders to request “something more than additional study dollars for experimentation” in the FY ’20 budget and criticized the perceived “schizophrenia in the Air Force about light attack.” Textron Aviation is headquartered in Wichita, Kansas.
After two years of test and experimentation, the service was expected to release a request for proposals in January for Textron and SNC to vie for a contract to be awarded in FY ‘2020; that month, Air Force Undersecretary Matt Donovan told reporters the program had been delayed “indefinitely.”
Goldfein emphasized that the two companies currently working on light attack have been “spectacular” to work with.
“When we got to the end of the experiment period, the question was, do we have the strategy right? Do we have the interoperability right to be able to put forward a request for proposal to be able to get the allies and partners where we need to be?” he said. “Our determination was we were not there.”
Brett Pierson, vice president for light attack and Scorpion aircraft for Textron Aviation, said the company was excited for the Air Force to procure a small number of AT-6 Wolverines, but also for the renewed opportunity to showcase its Scorpion jet, which underwent experiments early on in the light attack effort, but was eliminated in 2017.
No contract has been signed yet for the AT-6, Pierson added. Textron has a previously-scheduled meeting next week with the Air Force, he said.
“We’ve been taking them at their word that this was eventually going to happen.” he said.
The global market for light attack aircraft appears to call for a wide variety of platforms, he noted. Some partner nations may be more comfortable with a turboprop aircraft, while others would prefer a jet.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said during the Wednesday SAC-D hearing that the Air Force plans to work with industry to conduct a global survey of both manned and unmanned aircraft, “so we really understand what the allies want.”