Thinking Smaller, the Air Force Learns a Thing or Two

After evaluating “light attack” aircraft, the military likes what it sees.

Beechcraft AT-6
A Beechcraft AT-6, dropping a 500-pound bomb during 2011 tests.

The Light Attack Experiment that took place in August at Holloman Air Force Base, deep in the New Mexico desert, “exceeded my wildest expectations for success,” says U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command project officer Colonel Mike Pietrucha, “and I am not normally the fountain of excitement.”

Senior Air Force leaders seems to share his optimism.          

The trial, which saw four manufacturer-supplied aircraft put through their paces in mock-combat scenarios, was intended to show the Air Force just what modern light attack airplanes—the kind typically used against small groups of enemy combatants on the ground—can do. The Air Force effectively lost light attack capabilities when the Cessna A-37 was retired after the 1991 Gulf War, and was replaced by the significantly heavier and more capable Fairchild-Republic A-10. That airplane was well-suited to destroying Soviet tanks, the job for which it was designed, but is overkill for the low-intensity wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, now well into their second decade.

Among the aircraft taking part in the event were the Sierra Nevada/Embraer A-29 Super Tucano and the Beechcraft AT-6C Wolverine. Both competed in 2010 to supply Afghanistan’s air force with 24 light attack aircraft. The A-29 won, and is arguably the aircraft to beat in any future competition.

Also taking part were two aircraft at opposite ends of the light attack spectrum: Textron’s internally-developed Scorpion jet and Air Tractor’s AT-802L Longsword, a modified crop duster produced in partnership with L3. Not participating was the IOMAX Archangel, a highly modified Thrush crop duster that the UAE has been employing in the Middle East since 2015. The Scorpion was the only pure jet in the contest; the others are propeller-driven turboprops, all powered by the ubiquitous Pratt & Whitney PT-6 engine.

“They all gave us something to experiment with,” says Pietrucha ,who stressed that “we are not making a direct comparison between aircraft. We’re looking at showing off aviation capabilities of one kind or another.” Asked to elaborate, Pietrucha said that non-disclosure agreements with the manufacturers prevent him from discussing any aircraft in detail.  

He also says it’s too early to talk about a potential combat demonstration. “We’re still wrapping up from the first experiment....I was drawing stuff out over the weekend on the back of an auto repair receipt, so we’re definitely at the bar-napkin stage of the follow-on.” As of now, there’s no funding for such a demonstration. “We have to be cautious here, because there’s a lot more problems than combat air force capability, a lot more technical challenges and so on that we want to experiment with.” The Holloman experiment was reported to have cost approximately $6 million. Press reports suggest the combat demonstration, Combat Dragon III, could cost as much as $100 million, and would likely involve crews from the Air Force, Navy, Marines, and an unidentified foreign country.

The Holloman experiment made two things clear, says Pietrucha: “One is that the Air Force needs to be paying attention to a much broader portion of the aircraft industry.” Several of the participants, he says, “showed us things we didn’t know really existed. The second big thing we learned is that industry has advanced well beyond what we’re used to in terms of mission systems and in terms of manufacturing processes. We’ve been locked into our long-term, 20-plus year production programs for so long that we missed developments in the commercial aviation industry.”

One development that caught his eye was the separation of flight control software from mission attack software. “Every participant had a variant of that,” says Pietrucha, adding that Air Force research labs have been advocating this approach.

To illustrate why software separation is attractive, Pietrucha cites the software upgrade cycle for the F-15E, in which he was a backseater. Because the flight control software and the mission software are combined, Pietrucha says the aircraft has to be re-certified every time its software gets updated. Consequently, it takes two years before any change can be adopted. By separating flight and mission software, he says updates could be done in weeks.

“We saw participants making [software] changes overnight,” he says. For example, when one airman asked a manufacturer “ ‘Can you give me a button on the touch screen?’ Bang! The next day theres a button on the touch screen.” The flexibility in software means the Air Force may be able to change the way it does business, he says.

After several false starts over the last decde, the Air Force finally seems to be on track to develop a light attack aircraft, thanks in part to strong support from Arizona Senator John McCain and a $1.2 billion budget request for the OA-X program from the Senate Armed Services Committee. If everything is funded and scheduled according to plan—a rare occurrence—OA-X could remove some of the burden from faster-moving attack aircraft built for more contested airspace. Current U.S. enemies have no air defense networks to speak of, so  jaw-dropping aircraft performance and sophisticated countermeasures are largely wasted. Add OA-X to the mix, and the advanced aircraft can go back to doing what they are built for: Flying through, and laying waste to, top-notch air defenses.

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