An A-29 Super Tucano turboprop provided by Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) and Embraer Defense & Security has arrived at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico to participate in the Air Force’s light-attack aircraft experiment, an SNC official said July 11.

Over the next few weeks, airmen will be trained to fly the A-29, which has been outfitted with a Link 16 data-link and a Flir Systems [FLIR] electro-optical/infrared camera to prepare it for the flight demonstration, said Taco Gilbert, senior vice president for SNC’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) business area.

Embraer's A-29 Super Tucano for Afghanistan. Photo: Embraer.
Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano for Afghanistan. Photo: Embraer.

Gilbert told reporters that the Air Force plans to evaluate the A-29’s handling, maneuvering and formation-flying qualities and its ability to incorporate night-vision goggles, deploy weapons and perform ISR.

The A-29 is one of several aircraft expected to take part in the experiment, which is slated to begin July 31 and last four to six weeks. Textron [TXT] Aviation Defense plans to supply its Scorpion jet and AT-6 Wolverine turboprop.

The Air Force and industry are sharing the cost of the experiment. Gilbert said that the A-29 will cost “well under $1,000 an hour” to operate, not counting the salaries of the aircrew and maintenance personnel.

SNC and Brazil’s Embraer are touting the A-29’s extensive use by other militaries, including the Afghan air force, and its ability to perform a wide range of missions, including air to air and air to ground.

“The aircraft has been employed by 13 different nations around the world in a variety of environments, from tropical to desert to high altitude [to] maritime,” Gilbert said. “It has got over several hundred thousand operational hours, and right now we’re at almost 40,000 combat hours on the airplane in multiple environments.”

It is unclear what will follow the Air Force experiment, as the service has not committed to a procurement program. But Air Force officials have indicated that they want to find out if light-attack aircraft could ease the workload on their fighters, which are overtaxed and expensive to operate. Adding light-attack aircraft to the inventory could also provide much-needed training time and allow the Air Force to absorb more pilots.

With the war on terrorism expected to continue for years, “do we want to continue to fly six-hour sorties at 20 or 30 or 40 thousand dollars a flying hour, wearing off valuable service life for legacy airplanes, or do we want to look at something new?” asked Gen. James “Mike” Holmes, head of the Air Force’s Air Command Command, who spoke at a Capitol Hill event July 11. “At Holloman, starting this month, we’ll look at something new.”

The Senate version of the fiscal year 2018 defense authorization bill, which the Senate Armed Services Committee approved in late June, would authorize $1.2 billion to begin buying a fleet of 300 light-attack/observation aircraft.

“These aircraft could conduct counter-terrorism operations, perform close air support and other missions in permissive environments, and help season fighter pilots to mitigate the Air Force’s growing and critical fighter pilot shortfall,” the committee wrote in a report explaining the bill.

The committee expects that the aircraft would require “minimal” development work and that the Air Force could buy the first 200 by FY ’22.