OA-X phase two kicks off
A Textron Aviation AT-6B Wolverine flies over White Sands Missile Range, NM on July 31, 2017. (Image source: USAF/Ethan D. Wagner)
 

OA-X phase two kicks off

It's down to the Sierra Nevada-Embraer A-29 Super Tucano and the Textron Aviation AT-6B Wolverine
Yesterday, the sound of turboprops was heard again over Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.

With the second phase of the U.S. Air Force Light Attack Experiment (OA-X) ramping up, test pilots began flying the Sierra Nevada-Embraer A-29 Super Tucano and Textron Aviation AT-6B Wolverine on May 7, kicking off a three-month, live-fly experiment to determine which aircraft, if any, might fit the bill for a potential light attack aircraft production contract.    

The first OA-X experiment phase began in August 2017. Four aircraft were originally flown at Holloman that summer under the premise of demonstrating capabilities including light surface attack and close air support (both daytime and nighttime), rapid turn rates, weapons qualification, sensor and communication system performance, austere environment handling, and low fielding and procurement costs.

The two aircraft not appearing for the second phase of testing are the L-3 Technologies OA-8 Longsword (a variant of the Air Tractor AT-802) and the Textron AirLand Scorpion Jet (the only jet aircraft that participated).

Although initial OA-X plans included real-life combat demonstrations following phase one, USAF officials chose early this year to move ahead with the second phase of testing. During phase two, officials will examine sustainment requirements for the Super Tucano and Wolverine, as well as both systems’ ability to network with partner nation aircraft for the purpose of carrying out light attack operations alongside coalition allies as part of the U.S. National Defense Strategy.

In a comment to Senate Armed Services Committee, Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfien said, “We're looking at light attack through the lens of allies and partners. A big part of the Light Attack Experiment is a common architecture and an intelligence-sharing network, so that those who would join us would be part of the campaign against violent extremism.”

Other components of phase two testing will include air interdiction, armed overwatch, and combat search and rescue. On the sustainment side, maintenance experts will assess flightline and in-shop maintenance.

While the two aircraft share similar low-tech design features—both are low-wing cantilevered monoplanes that use a 1,600 SHP Pratt & Whitney PT6A-68 turboprop engine—inside the cockpit they are outfitted with modern glass technology (LCD flight instrument displays screens instead of traditional analog gauges), Hands-On-Throttle-And-Stick (HOTAS) controls, and state-of-the-art avionics. Both aircraft can also have single- and twin-seat arrangements.

Ideally, the winning aircraft would supplement or potentially replace the Lockheed Martin F-35 and Fairchild Republic A-10 as the light attack resource for uncontested or “permissive” environments; potentially lowering operating costs for that purpose by a factor of ten.

While the USAF has not committed to a production contract, the OA-X experiment is designed to bypass the lengthy traditional procurement process (which often takes 10 to 15 years to complete) and could allowing the USAF to field light attack aircraft in the decade they were chosen for.

To address the challenge of establishing logistics and support programs while deploying an aircraft fleet at an accelerated pace, some USAF officials have considered a “throwaway” approach to sidestep supply chain issues. If a light attack option is chosen for production, initial units could potentially be fielded quickly and replaced by other airframes as they are built.

According to USAF officials, there is approximately $2.5 billion over the next 5 years set aside for the program. Although OA-X is the only program utilizing the new acquisition process, but USAF officials have hinted at the potential for a similar light intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) procurement (or possibly additional ISR requirements for OA-X contenders). At the time of this article, the potential funding is scheduled for 2020, but may be reallocated to 2019.
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