It’s Not a Fly-Off Competition: U.S. Air Force Tests Process and Planes at Light Attack Demo

Aug 16 2017 - 11 Comments
By Tom Demerly

New Process Showcased for Sourcing Includes Proposed Light Attack Aircraft.

The U.S. Air Force invited reporters to Holloman AFB in New Mexico for briefings about its new Light Attack Experiment last week. The key message from top Air Force and industry officials was not about aircraft selection, but about new evaluation methods for some proposed Air Force programs.

Adding emphasis to the significance of the program Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff General David L. Goldfein were in attendance at Holloman AFB for the event.

The four aircraft included in the Light Attack Experiment are the proven Embraer A-29 Super Tucano, the Textron Aviation AT-6 turboprop, Textron’s new Scorpion light twin-engine jet and the interesting crop-duster turned combat plane, the Air Tractor/L3 Platform Integration AT-802L Longsword. Examples of each of the aircraft were present at the event for journalists, industry insiders and members of participating nations’ air forces to examine.

But the emphasis on this demonstration was process, not planes.

As a possible outcome of the new evaluation and selection process acquisition programs could become more agile, adaptable and bring some future-facing needs to the battlefield faster and at lower cost. This may include a new light attack aircraft for the U.S. Air Force.

Part of the Air Force’s dual focus on process and planes is the open source acquisition methodology used during the Light Attack Experiment. The aircraft in the evaluation test case already exist, they are relatively “off the shelf”. Three of the four aircraft have already been employed in the light attack/counterinsurgency role, with only one, the Textron AirLand Scorpion, being a new developmental aircraft.

The Light Attack Experiment Demo patch.

This new acquisition process will reduce costs and accelerate suitable programs from the evaluation to operational stage more quickly. The process compliments large-scale full-development program successes like the Joint Strike Fighter program that lead to the Air Force’s new F-35A Lightning II while filling a different, complimentary need.

U.S. Air Force Commander of Air Combat Command, General James “Mike” Holmes made a case for the Light Attack concept to reporters, “So you can imagine a world where you’re able to base some of these airplanes closer to the [forward] area, they can stay on station for a pretty good time, with a turboprop engine, which gives them a lot of time to stay out there. And then ultimately, it comes down again, to that really low cost.”

The Commander of ACC went on to note additional advantages in creating new combat pilots more efficiently, “My take is part of the benefit of this airplane is I can season and produce fighter pilots fast. I can fly a lot of hours on it pretty cheaply, and so I can make an experienced fighter pilot, which is what I’m short, I can make one fast.” When commenting on any potential progression of light tactical turboprop combat pilots to the fast jet community General Holmes told us, “I’ll season them in this airplane and then I’ll bring them back and put them into a short course, into a fourth or fifth gen fighter.”

Air Force Chief of Staff General David L. Goldfein and Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson (all photos Author/The Aviationist)

Finally, in remarks to reporters, General Holmes hinted at an interesting prospect that harkens to the historical roots of Air Force Special Operations going back to the Vietnam era Air Commandos and the use of light combat aircraft in the counterinsurgency (COIN) role when he added, “There is also the possibility that AFSOC may come forward and say they want to employ the airplane.”

While General Holmes was articulate about the possible advantages of the Light Attack concept he was also measured about its potential promise, “I can use them in combat, I think, we’ll find out. When they’re in the United States I can use them to train tactical air control parties at a much lower cost per flying hour and I can use them to support my maneuver unit training with the Army, at a much lower cost per flying hour and still work through all the CAS procedures. It’s a capability, we think, we’re going to do these experiments and see, that would let us continue to do another multi-year approach to fighting violent extremist organizations at a cheaper cost in a fiscal environment where every dollar counts.”

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General David L. Golden made a fitting entrance to the light attack demo at the controls of one of the test aircraft.

Just as programs like Joint Strike Fighter and Light Attack are vastly different, it makes sense that the development, evaluation and acquisition processes are different also. And because this new pipeline to highly adaptive operational capability places a strong enterprise motive on private industry as opposed to government, it can provide greatly reduced developmental cost to taxpayers.

Light attack was a good place to start with this new, open source evaluation process. The post 9/11 battlefield has changed significantly during the Global War on Terror. It includes a wide spectrum of conflict models for air combat. These include large scale air operations against nation states with conventional air forces flying against heavily defended ground targets in a non-permissive environment, like Desert Storm. At the other end of the spectrum it includes anti-insurgent air operations in a smaller, more permissive battlespace that does not require stealth, long range aircraft or heavy weapons, like some operations in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Afghan Air Force is already employing the Embraer/Sierra Nevada Corporation A-29 Super Tucano, one of the aircraft in the Light Attack Experiment, operationally. And this multi-nation user set adds interoperability to the argument for light attack also.

One of the most interesting participants in the Light Attack Demo is the AT-802L Longsword from L3 Platform Integration and Air Tractor.

U.S. Air Force subject matter expert on light attack and counterinsurgency Col. Mike Pietrucha spoke to TheAviationist.com specifically about the Light Attack Experiment and the promise it may offer the Air Force:

“The argument is to go for a less expensive aircraft that is more optimized for the kind of warfighting we’ve been doing so that you can spread the burden out, rather than make everything a one size fits all airplane. Bottom line of that right now, is we have more missions than we have Air Force. When you look at light attack the amount of fuel it takes to keep a turboprop in the air for an hour is the amount of fuel it takes to taxi the Strike Eagle down the runway for six to nine minutes. Just the logistics start to look like an awfully attractive argument.”

The rear cockpit, systems operator station in the AT-802L Longsword features (A.) a unique alpha-control keyboard that is worn on the controller’s arm to actuate some weapons/guidance/designation and communications functions. (B.) A side stick controller moves sensors for target imaging. (C.) The rear cockpit features full flight controls. (D.) There is a large multi-function display from sensors.

If successful, acquisition processes like the one demonstrated during the Light Attack Experiment broaden the Air Force’s spectrum of ways it can acquire new equipment and adapt to a rapidly changing battlespace more quickly as the nature of conflict evolves. This process also improves economic efficiencies while addressing the current pilot shortage by providing new training opportunities. By nearly every measure, the new acquisition methodology and the Light Attack Experiment concept represent strong, adaptable synergies for modern air power in the rapidly changing battlespace.

The Embraer A-29 Super Tucano and the AT-802L Longsword on display at the Light Attack Demo.

Salva

  • leroy

    I’d reject the Air Tractor due to poor cockpit visibility, non-retractable gear, too ugly. The Scorpion is a twin engine jet which will make it more costly to purchase and operate. The AT-6 optical pod is positioned centerline between the wings which means no video while banking. The Super Tucano is the best plane except for the fact that Embraer is a Brazilian company, and because Brasília cancelled their F/A-18 purchase I wouldn’t buy any planes from them (plus I prefer a U.S. prime on this type of buy). So? I don’t like any of them, but if I had to choose I’d go with the AT-6 for political reasons. An American company (Textron-Beechcraft) with jobs for the heartland (I don’t care where the Super T is made – Brazil is out). That’s my decision, and it’s final.

    • Victorinox

      The Air Tractor and the Scorpion are both rejected from the beginning. Both companies know that, this is just a great marketing exercise.

      The USAF requirements clearly state that planes need an ejector seat and pressurized cabin (which the Air Tractor doesn’t have), and the ability to operate from unprepared runways (which the Scorpion doesn’t have).

      The USAF calls the Super Tucano and the Wolverine “Tier 1” competitors, and the rest “Tier 2”. Only Tier 1 competitors are in the real running.

      The rest are just taking advantage of the presence of many foreign air forces witnessing the test to showcase the capabilities of their products in the hope of securing some foreign sales, even though they absolutely know they will never go to Phase 2 in the USAF test.

      Also, the Super Tucano is as “American” as the Wolverine. It is built in Jacksonville, and absolutely everything on board is made in the USA, from the engine, to the avionics, to the ejector seats, to the weapons. The only thing foreign is the original design. But that’s exactly the same as the T-6, which is also a foreign design (Swiss Pilatus PC-9).

      So I don’t buy your chest thumping “the T-6 is ‘Murican” BS.

      The Tucano is a better airplane. Period. Every time they face each other the Tucano wins. It even won the USAF prior fly off.

      • leroy

        I said the Super Tucano was the better bird, but with President Trump’s “buy American” campaign, what will sell better in middle America (his base) – buying Beechcraft or buying Embraer? Doesn’t matter where they’re made or where most of the parts are manufactured. Perception rules politics, and buying a Textron-Beechcraft product makes for a better political visual. Why just look at the websites – one an American company, the other Brazilian:

        http://defense.txtav.com/en/at-6

        http://www.embraerds.com/super_tucano.html

        And that’s my prediction, the AF will choose the AT-6. We’ll see who is right. Remember this post.

        PS. Why buy any aircraft from Brazil when they screwed us on the F/A-18 sale? We shouldn’t!

        • Victorinox

          Stop with this nonsense that the T-6 is “American” and the Super Tucano is not. Both are exactly as American. It is not Beechcraft vs. Embraer. It is Sierra Nevada vs. Textron.

          In fact, the US is actively marketing and SELLING Super Tucanos to other countries, like the recent sales to Afghanistan, Lebanon, and is now in the process of selling planes to Nigeria (which was approved by Trump). All those planes will be made in the USA, in Jacksonville, Florida.
          https://www.defensenews.com/air/2017/08/03/us-approves-a-29-super-tucano-sale-to-nigeria/

          The clown in the White House can say whatever he wants. But they US Air Force knows what they are doing, and they have twice selected the Super Tucano as the better plane.

          Also, why should Brazil have bought the F-18? Were the planes going to be manufactured in Brazil? NO. Was there going to be any technology transfer? NO. Then why should they buy planes from the US, when the US is not willing to create jobs there, and share the technology? Embraer on the other hand, is creating jobs in the US, paying taxes in the US, and sharing whatever the Air Force or other partner require.

          Brazil didn’t screw the US over the F-18 sale. It was the US that tried to screw Brazil with that BS offer. The F-18 was not even the right plane for them anyway. They were looking for a cheap, single engine, easy to maintain fighter, not a complex, twin engine naval fighter with all sorts of restrictions regarding radar and weapons.

          • leroy

            Twin visuals. Embraer is Brazilian, and all the explaining that it’s really Sierra vs Beechcraft (or Textron, take your pick) won’t hold political water. And yes, the U.S. will look like we are being taken advantage of (President Trump loves to say that) if we buy a “Brazilian” plane after they cancelled the Boeing F/A-18 order (you know that’s how Boeing’s PR people will paint it – and Trump will lose political points).

            So you have your guess, me mine, we both agree that the Tucano is the better plane (but for the political/visual reasons I mentioned I don’t think the U.S. will go that way) and we’ll just have to wait and see how this goes down.

          • leroy

            BTW – they all have cool videos:

            https://youtu.be/DEkFquTDsPI

    • I’d agree with you, but then both of us would be wrong.

      As victorinox pointed out the Super Tucano is as “American” as the Wolverine.

    • Chuck Doofe

      If we’re going for pure efficiency on this like the article says several times, the AT-6 would also be the ideal choice since virtually every pilot in the US military knows how to fly a T-6 already. Either as a student in Primary, or as an instructor.

  • pappa gone

    some months ago Marines taken from ITAF some AMX to try in light attack role. Can we know something of this try?

  • pappa gone

    Italian Air force use them in afghanistan with exceptional results, prerhaps better than helicopters as Mangusta, specially in first time support when situations are very bads, and also in support of american army… in some moments. So Usa commands ask some of them to put un try in american soil. I read this some months ago also in the web. They are light. fast, and cabable in doing some way better than warthogs and attack helicopters. Excuse- me for little english.

    • El Kabong

      Was I talking about the AMI?

      I was specifically asking for a credible reference to back up the claim,
      “some months ago Marines taken from ITAF some AMX to try in light attack role.”.