A U.S. Air Force competition to buy light-attack aircraft might formally begin in as few as five months, according to an industry source.

The service has told aircraft manufacturers that it expects to issue a request for proposals as early as October, the source said May 14. A contract award for up to several hundred planes could occur within six months of the RFP’s release, the source added.AF Seal_500

Maj. Emily Grabowski, an Air Force spokeswoman, declined to comment on the timeline, saying “it’s too early” to discuss such details.

The Air Force has been exploring whether low-cost, light-attack aircraft could ease the anti-terrorism workload on its fighter jets, which are overtaxed and expensive to operate. The service also wants to see whether light-attack planes could improve interoperability with allies that cannot afford fighters.

Earlier this month, the Air Force began a three-month experiment at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico to evaluate the two leading contenders: the A-29 Super Tucano turboprop from Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) and Embraer Defense & Security and the AT-6 Wolverine turboprop from Textron [TXT] Aviation Defense (Defense Daily, May 7).

The experiment will focus on how the planes share information, what sensors they should carry and how they should be operated and maintained. The Air Force evaluated a total of four aircraft, including the A-29 and AT-6, during a flight demonstration last year.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told reporters in February that this year’s experiment will help the Air Force iron out program details, including how many aircraft it will buy and over what time period (Defense Daily, Feb. 16). “We’re going to try to move very quickly,” Wilson said at the time. “It’s not intended to be a long procurement.”

The Air Force recently updated its five-year spending plan to include a $2.4 billion “placeholder” to acquire the aircraft.