Here's everything the Air Force wants in a light attack plane
The Air Force is now finalizing requirements documentation, planning a new round of combat-scenario assessments, and refining an acquisition strategy for its fast-tracked new Light Attack aircraft.
The Air Force plans a new round of tests and experiments for the new aircraft — a new multi-role aircraft intended to fill specific and highly dangerous attack mission requirements amid circumstances where the US has achieved air supremacy.
Following an initial Air Force Light Attack aircraft in August 2017, which included assessments of a handful of off-the-shelf options, the Air Force is now streamlining its effort to continue testing only two of the previous competitors from summer 2017 — Textron Aviation's AT-6 Wolverine and the Sierra Nevada/Embraer A-29 Super Tucano.
Senior Air Force leaders had told Warrior Maven that, depending upon the results of summer 2017's experimentation at Holloman AFB, N.M., the service might send a light attack option under consideration to actual combat missions to further assets is value. Now, given what is being learned during ongoing evaluations, service officials say an actual "combat" demo test will not be necessary.
"At this time, we believe we have the right information to move forward with light attack, without conducting a combat demonstration. The Air Force is gathering enough decision-quality data through experimentation to support rigorous light attack aircraft assessments along with rapid procurement/fielding program feasibility reviews," Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Emily Grabowski told Warrior Maven.
Grabowski added that the for the new aircraft, a $2.5 billion effort over the course of the service's 5-year development plan.
In keeping with the Air Force vision for the Light Attack aircraft, the anticipated test combat scenarios in which for the US Air Force has air supremacy - but still needs maneuverability, close air support and the ability to precisely destroy ground targets.
The emerging Light Attack aircraft is envisioned as a low-cost, commercially-built, combat-capable plane able to perform a wide range of missions in a less challenging or more permissive environment.
The idea is to save mission time for more expensive and capable fighter jets, such as an F-15 or F-22, when an alternative can perform needed air-ground attack missions — such as recent attacks on ISIS.
F-15 Eagle with Legion pod. (Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin)
Light Attack aircraft, able to hover close to the ground and attack enemies in close proximity to US forces amid a fast-moving, dynamic combat situation, would quite likely be of substantial value in counterinsurgency-type fights as well as near-peer, force-on-force engagements.
The combat concept here, were the Air Force to engage in a substantial conflict with a major, technically-advanced adversary, would be to utilize stealth attack and advanced 5th-Gen fighters to establish air superiority — before sending light aircraft into a hostile area to support ground maneuvers, fire precision weapons at ground targets from close range, and even perform on-the-spot combat rescue missions when needed.
Additionally, the Air Force will experiment with rapidly building and operating an exportable, shareable, affordable network to enable air platforms to communicate with joint and multi-national forces and command-and-control nodes, Grabowski said.
The upcoming experiment, to take place from May to July of 2018 at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, is expected to align with combat-capability assessment parameters consistent with those used August 2017.
"This will let us gather the data needed for a rapid procurement," Heather Wilson, Secretary of the Air Force, said in a written statement.
Air Force officials previously provided these parameters to Warrior Maven, during the analysis phase following summer 2017's experiment:
- Basic Surface Attack – Assess impact accuracy using hit/miss criteria of practice/laser-guided bomb, and unguided/guided rockets
- Close Air Support (CAS) – Assess ability to find, fix, track target and engage simulated operational targets while communicating with
the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC)
- Daytime Ground Assault Force (GAF) – assess aircraft endurance, range, ability to communicate with ground forces through unsecure and secure radio and receive tactical updates
- Rescue Escort (RESCORT) – Assess pilot workload to operate with a helicopter, receive area updates and targeting data, employ ballistic, unguided/guided rockets and laser-guided munitions
- Night CAS – Assess pilot workload to find, fix, track, target and engage operational targets
At the same time, service officials do say the upcoming tests will more fully explore some additional criteria, such as an examination of logistics and maintenance requirements, weapons and sensor issues, training syllabus validity, networking and future interoperability with partner forces.
A-29 Super Tucano
US-trained pilots with the Afghan Air Force have been attacking the Taliban with A-29 Super Tucano aircraft.
An A-29 Super Tucano pitch. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr.)
A-29s are turboprop planes armed with one 20mm cannon below the fuselage able to shoot 650 rounds per minute, one 12.7mm machine gun (FN Herstal) under each wing and up to four 7.62mm Dillion Aero M134 Miniguns able to shoot up to 3,000 rounds per minute.
Super Tucanos are also equipped with 70mm rockets, air-to-air missiles such as the AIM-9L Sidewinder, air-to-ground weapons such as the AGM-65 Maverick and precision-guided bombs. It can also use a laser rangefinder and laser-guided weapons.
The Super Tucano is a highly maneuverable light attack aircraft able to operate in high temperatures and rugged terrain. It is 11.38 meters long and has a wingspan of 11.14 meters; its maximum take-off weight is 5,400 kilograms. The aircraft has a combat radius of 300 nautical miles, can reach speeds up to 367 mph and hits ranges up to 720 nautical miles.
AT-6 Light Attack
The Textron Aviation AT-6 is the other multi-role light attack aircraft being analyzed by the Air Force. It uses a Lockheed A-10C mission computer and a CMC Esterline glass cockpit with flight management systems combined with an L3 Wescam MX-Ha15Di multi-sensor suite which provides color and IR sensors, laser designation technology and a laser rangefinder. The aircraft is built with an F-16 hands on throttle and also uses a SparrowHawk HUD with integrated navigation and weapons delivery, according to Textron Aviation information on the plane.
Five international partners observed the first phase of the Light Attack Experiment, and the Air Force plans to invite additional international partners to observe this second phase of experimentation, a service statement said.