The Air Force has opted to push back the light attack aircraft (LAA) program to procure an off-the-shelf aircraft for use in close-air support and counterinsurgency missions over the next year as it prioritizes efforts to follow the 2018 National Defense Strategy, the service’s military deputy for acquisition said Feb. 1.

The service was expected to release the final LAA request for proposals in the first quarter of 2019, but has now delayed the release indefinitely, Defense News first reported Jan. 18. Speaking at an Air Force Association event on Capitol Hill Friday morning, Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch said that as the service worked through its fiscal year 2020 budget request, the requirements needed to address renewed great power competition laid out in the National Defense Strategy crowded out the LAA program.

A Textron AT-6 Wolverine turboprop aircraft.

“Looking at the National Defense Strategy and the priorities that we have to meet all of those, this was not an area that we would go do a large procurement at this time,” Bunch said. “That is the situation that we found ourselves in.”

The light attack experiment began in 2016 as a rapid acquisition effort by the Air Force with a series of flight tests and demonstrations among four potential off-the-shelf aircraft in 2017, where industry partners committed to invest in the effort upfront. The service in 2018 down-selected two aircraft to continue tests and data collection – the A-29 Super Tucano built by Embraer and Sierra Nevada Corp. [SNC] and Textron Aviation’s [TXT] AT-6 Wolverine – and widely indicated in media interviews that the intent was to select one of those two aircraft for procurement by the end of 2020.

Bunch said the service now plans to continue experimentation “to include more technical solutions and ideas” and that the requirement to develop a light attack capability for use in permissive environments still exists.

“We must come up with an appropriate means to – in a cost-effective manner – address counter-violent extremism,” he said, adding that the Air Force will further examine “technologies that we may be able to put on platforms, or solutions that we may not have thought of to look at how we go forward.”

Industry sources indicated to Defense Daily that they had not been informed of the new path forward for the LAA program. Bunch said the Air Force intends to consult with industry as well and Congress on a path forward for the requirement.

He added that the light attack effort was always phrased as an experiment and was meant to be “additive” to other capabilities needs within the service.

“It could not take the place of any of the other missions that we had; it would need to be added on top,” he said.

Bunch said he considered the experiment so far to be a success, regardless of the path forward.

“We tried something we hadn’t done. We built a partnership with industry, we experimented, we learned a lot, and we got to the point that we weren’t ready to make a large buy decision at this stage,” he said. “I still believe that is learning and working through what we talked about … and I believe it has been something that we will take the lessons learned and roll it into how we go forward.”

The LAA’s related effort to procure an off-the-shelf radio system that could be easily placed on any aircraft, dubbed Aeronet, continues to bear fruit, Bunch added.

“We looked at Aeronet and we came up with a network that we could share that was low cost, and mostly built on commercial off the shelf [equipment]. And we demonstrated the ability to link all those things together, and we’re going to continue to experiment along those lines as well,” Bunch said He has stood up a separate program office to handle that effort, he added.

The Air Force plans to discuss the program’s future with key lawmakers before making more details public, he noted. Congress approved the Air Force’s request to use Section 804 authorities to conduct the LAA experiment.

“We have had strong support from Congress in a lot of these areas, and I’ve got to go explain it to them,” he said.