The U.S. Air Force says that it will begin formally soliciting bids for an undisclosed number of light attack aircraft within months and that Embraer and Sierra Nevada Corporation’s A-29 Super Tucano or Textron’s AT-6C Wolverine look to be the most promising candidates, which could invite protests from other companies. Beyond that, the service doesn’t expect to issue an actual contract until sometime in 2019, a lengthy wait for planes that it now admits could have been useful in various conflicts since 1993, well before the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Global War on Terror.
On Aug. 3, 2018, the Air Force Materiel Command issued one notice, in error, on FedBizOpps, the U.S. government’s top contracting website, before replacing it with a corrected one. According to the announcement, the service wants to put out a solicitation in December 2018 and pick a winning offer in the fourth quarter of the 2019 Fiscal Year, which runs from July 1, 2019, to Sept. 30, 2019. The Air Force still has yet to say how many aircraft it expects to purchase as part of what it is now calling the Light Attack Aircraft (LAA) program.
“LAA will provide an affordable, non-developmental aircraft intended to operate globally in the types of Irregular Warfare environments that have characterized combat operations over the past 25 years,” the final noticed explained. “Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) and Textron Aviation are the only firms that appear to possess the capability necessary to meet the requirement within the Air Force's time frame without causing an unacceptable delay in meeting the needs of the warfighter.”
That latter statement is hardly surprising. As we at The War Zone have pointed out on a number of occasions, the Air Force and other branches of the U.S. military have, together collectively, evaluated one or both of these aircraft on no less than six separate occasions since 2007.
Most recently, the service had put the two aircraft types through a series of experiments that it said would explore the potential to integrate additional sensors and networking capabilities, as well as examine their maintenance and logistical requirements. It seemed difficult to understand why the Air Force still needed to gather information on these topics and, after a fatal accident in June 2018, it shut down the tests early and declared it had all the data it needed.
On top of that, the Air Force itself already flies A-29s to help train foreign pilots and operates the T-6 Texan II, the unarmed trainer that Textron used as the basis for the AT-6C. It is safe to say that the service has had a wealth of information about these two aircraft and a good understanding of their capabilities and operational requirements for years.
So, it would make good sense to focus on them in order to help speed up the process of getting new light attack planes into service as fast as possible, especially given that the Air Force’s somewhat stunning acknowledgment about having had a need for them for more than two decades. The 25-year time frame in the contracting notice dates back to when Somali militants shot down two MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters killed 18 American special operators, and wounded dozens more in a running gun battle in that country’s capital Mogadishu following a risky daytime raid to capture individuals close to prominent warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid. American forces in the country had limited close air support options at the time and the debacle set the tone for U.S. involvement in Somalia, as well as how it conducted limited interventions in general, for more than a decade thereafter.
But even now, the Air Force still seems to be dragging its feet on the LAA program. If the service awards a contract right on July 1, 2019, this will be two years after it started its light attack aircraft experiment, commonly known as OA-X. It will be more than a decade after members of the service produced the first OA-X white paper calling for this type of aircraft in 2008.
The video below shows rare footage from the Battle of Mogadishu in October 1993.
As of June 2018, the service said that it still had not developed an acquisition strategy for buying light attack aircraft. It didn’t ask for any money for the program in its 2019 Fiscal Year budget request, either.
Congress, which has been very supportive of light attack aircraft projects, added hundreds of millions into the defense budget anyway, but the Air Force has suggested that a full LAA program that sees the purchase of between 200 and 300 aircraft in total could cost approximately $2.5 billion between the 2020 and 2024 fiscal years. The service has insinuated on a number of occasions that it doesn’t expect to begin receiving any such planes until 2020 at the earliest.
Stating up front that the A-29 and AT-6C are the primary competitors could easily lead to legal or procedural challenges from other firms interested in competing, as well. Czech firm Aero Vodochody and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) are heavily pushing what they're calling the F/A-259 Striker, an improved variant of Aero’s L-159 light jet aircraft. Bronco Combat Systems, a joint venture between South Africa’s Paramount Group and American defense company Fulcrum Concepts, is hoping to pitch their Bronco II aircraft.
Another U.S.-based firm, IOMAX, which is working with the Air Force separately to certify various aspects of its Archangel light attack aircraft, could be another prospective vendor. The North Carolina-headquartered company felt it had gotten unfairly excluded from the original OA-X experiment.
A formal challenge through Congress’ Government Accountability Office or the threat of a lawsuit could force the Air Force to consider more aircraft types, further drawing out the process. If nothing else, responding to those complaints could delay the LAA program’s contract.
Of course, it is still a positive sign that the Air Force does appear to be moving toward a formal program and a real contract. By its own admission, it has been a long time coming.
As we at the War Zone, among others, have consistently pointed out, these aircraft are not a substitute for high-performance combat jets, or even aircraft, such as the A-10, that might be increasingly better suited to medium-threat environments. It is a complimentary capability with a smaller logistics footprint that helps reduce the operational and sustainment demands on those other fleets and their pilots.
Cheaper to fly and maintain, a large fleet of light attack aircraft might use smaller operating locations with limited infrastructure to provide coverage across a broad area during limited conflicts. Between this dispersed posture and their ability to loiter over the battlefield for extended periods, these planes could provide invaluable armed overwatch for conventional and special operations forces.
Unfortunately, there is a real risk that remains is that if the Air Force still doesn’t have a clear plan for what it intends to do with the aircraft and how, for whatever reasons, that these planes might find themselves orphaned within the service’s force structure and ultimately discarded. Fears that this could happen led to the collapse of the almost identical Light Attack/Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR) program in 2012. It’s also what happened to the C-27J Spartan intra-theater airlifter, the remaining examples of which have now filtered out to U.S. Special Operations Command, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the U.S. Forest Service.
The Air Force has continually stressed how important it will be for foreign partners to be a part of the program, as well, but hasn't explained how that will necessarily work. We don't know whether this means the LAA program will be more about assisting other countries in acquiring light attack aircraft than building this capability within the service itself. In the defense spending bill that Congress recently passed cover the 2019 fiscal year, legislators specifically demanded a report outlining how foreign cooperation fits in with the project.
We can only hope that the Air Force is more committed to seeing the new LAA program through than it has been with similar efforts in the past and finally acquires this much-needed capability.
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