NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The U.S. Air Force, which has been studying whether light-attack aircraft could serve as a low-cost supplement to its fighter jets, plans to conduct a light-attack combat demonstration “sometime next year,” a key official said Sept. 18.

The demonstration will build on the light-attack aircraft experiment the Air Force conducted over the summer at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, said Air Force Gen. James “Mike” Holmes, the head of Air Combat Command.

Air Force Gen. James "Mike" Holmes, commander of Air Combat Command. Photo: USAF.
Air Force Gen. James “Mike” Holmes, commander of Air Combat Command. Photo: USAF.

Four industry-provided aircraft flew during the experiment: an A-29 Super Tucano turboprop from Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) and Embraer Defense & Security; an AT-6 Wolverine turboprop and a Scorpion jet from Textron [TXT] Aviation Defense; and an AT-802L Longsword turboprop from Air Tractor and L3 Technologies [LLL].

“The next step for us would be to take the airplanes … and see how that works in a combat environment,” Holmes said at a media roundtable at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference.

The Air Force is working on a host of details for the combat demonstration, including what communications and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) gear to put on the aircraft. One low-cost option being considered is teaming with one of the companies that plan to field satellite constellations to provide high-speed Internet service.

While the Scorpion presents “intriguing possibilities” for ISR due to its large internal payload bays and extra cooling and power, Holmes emphasized that the Air Force has not decided which aircraft will participate in the combat demonstration, where the event will take place or whether to lease or buy the aircraft.

The Air Force is writing a report on the Holloman experiment and plans to finish it by year’s end. The Air Force is exploring light-attack aircraft as a potential way to ease the workload on its expensive fighters, give airmen more training time and absorb more pilots.

Also during the media roundtable, Holmes said the Air Force continues to study the possibility of temporarily hiring contractors to serve as aggressors in training exercises.

“I think we’ll define that requirement much clearer this fall,” he told reporters.

While the Air Force would prefer to keep its “red air” forces in-house, budget, personnel and time constraints are forcing the service to look at contractors.

“I would have to trade an operational fighter squadron for an aggressor squadron if I was going to do it in-house right now,” he said.

Also this fall, the Air Force hopes to decide how much longer it will keep flying its aging Boeing [BA] F-15C/D fighter fleet, Holmes said. The Air Force indicated in March that it was considering retiring its F-15C/Ds and replacing them with F-16s to perform air-superiority missions (Defense Daily, March 27).