Florida members of the House Appropriations Committee reaffirmed their commitment to procuring a new low-cost, light attack aircraft for the Air Force during a committee markup May 21, while critiquing the Air Force’s back-and-forth commitment to the effort.

The service in 2016 announced its intent to experiment with buying an off-the-shelf light attack aircraft to be used in permissive environments and with coalition partners. In 2018, the Air Force released a draft request for proposals and expressed plans to procure either Sierra Nevada Corp. [SNC] and Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano or Textron Aviation’s [TXT] At-6 Wolverine, but in January announced the final request for proposals was delayed “indefinitely” and instead the service would conduct further experimentation with other platforms, including jets and unmanned aircraft (Defense Daily, Feb. 1).

A Textron AT-6 Wolverine turboprop aircraft.

Although the service has also committed to procuring a small number of both A-29s and AT-6s by the end of the year, that backtrack on what appeared to be a solid plan to procure new light attack aircraft did not sit well with Florida lawmakers.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who sits on the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, requested Tuesday that the appropriations committee support an expected reprogramming request from the Air Force to appropriate leftover funds from FY’ 18 and FY ’19 to procure those aircraft (Defense Daily,  March 13).

He also expressed frustration that Air Force officials “have not been able to explain what capabilities that they hope to gain with further experimentation.”

Leaders of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) have both expressed the need for new off-the-shelf aircraft and highlighted the success they have witnessed in their respective areas of responsibility, he noted during the committee’s markup of the fiscal year 2020 defense appropriations bill. The committee approved the bill to be sent to the House floor along party lines Tuesday afternoon (Defense Daily, May 21).

“In my opinion …  it’s vitally important that we listen to the generals … that are leading our men and women in combat zones as well as, frankly, personally engaging with our partners,” he said.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.), who chairs the HAC military construction subcommittee, supported Diaz-Balart’s request and noted that Congress had allocated $100 million in research-and-development funds to the Air Force in 2018 for the experiment, and then the same amount in 2019 in rapid acquisition funds for aircraft procurement. She criticized the Air Force’s decision to leave light attack aircraft procurement funds out of the FY ’20 request.

“The Air Force’s decision not to meet the known immediate demands of [SOCOM], I believe, is shortsighted,” she said.

Rep. John Rutherford (R-Fla.) echoed his HAC colleagues and noted the benefit to the defense industrial base of procuring new aircraft.

Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano. Photo: Embraer

“We have individuals that trusted the Air Force and have made significant investments in this light attack aircraft that are now simply stalled,” he said. He also highlighted the benefit to coalition partners and the relief it provides to fourth- and fifth-generation fighter aircraft that are currently assisting with light attack missions.

“After two years of full congressional support in both rapid acquisition authorities and funding, the Air Force has made this bad decision concerning light attack and has yet to explain to the members of this committee why,” he said.

“I understand the hesitancy to fund a program that the Air Force does not seem willing to execute, but we have to get this program back on track for the warfighter,” he continued. He also suggested that if the Air Force continues to devalue the effort, the committee consider reprogramming funds over to the Army to procure the aircraft, instead. The Army launched a prototyping competition last fall to find its next light scout aircraft, dubbed the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (Defense Daily, Oct. 3, 2018).

Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), who chairs the HAC-Defense subcommittee, said the committee plans to continue work on the issue after it receives and reviews the reprogramming request, but appeared less supportive of continued experimentation efforts.

“In our view, the Air Force has done enough experimentation with light attack … to make a decision on moving forward,” he said.