David C Isby covers an evaluation of four types of aircraft as part of the US Air Force OA-X experiment

At Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, this summer, the US Air Force will evaluate – and compare against each other – four potential off-the-shelf aircraft designs. Each type will have been invited to take part because the Air Force determined the type has the potential to be a future Observation Attack – Experimental (OA-X) aircraft. The four competing aircraft types, flown by US Air Force pilots rather than test pilots, are to be evaluated for their ability to carry out a wide range of missions. All this will be part of an experiment conducted under the direction of the Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, a new directorate of the Air Force Research Laboratory formed in May 2016.

US Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations (A3), Lieutenant General Mark Nowland said in Washington on April 12 he was looking forward to it: “I’m very excited about the experimentation. I’m the operator. I don’t have to buy it, I just have to figure out how to use it. The idea of a high-low mix solves a lot of problems for me.”

On April 13, the Air Force announced that, even if a continuing resolution – such as the one that Congress decided to agree to on May 1 – caps funding at fiscal year FY2016 levels, $4 million for the experiment would be available from the technology transition account in research and development funding. This means, as they say in the Air Force, “Fight’s on.”

Setting up the Experiment

The four OA-X competitors that will go to Holloman this summer will each be an off-the-shelf design ready to enter production in the United States. Each will be inexpensive to procure and operate, yet combat capable against violent extremist organisations (VEOs) worldwide.

Military Deputy, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Lieutenant General Arnold Bunch Jr, said in Washington on March 16 that the US Air Force is looking for “lower operating cost, lower unit cost, something able to operate in a more permissive environment than a fourth or fifth-generation aircraft as a way to save costs in the long war, minimising wear and tear on fourth and fifth-generation platforms, though we cannot do this at the expense of mission accomplishment”.

Bunch sees the OA-X as the “next step to reinvigorate the spirit of experimentation, an innovative spirit of trial and error”. The OA-X experiment will, Bunch said, “build off Combat Dragon 2”, the programme that evaluated two Rockwell OV-10 Bronco twin-turboprops under combat conditions in the Middle East, a follow-on to the earlier Combat Dragon 1 programme at Naval Air Station Fallon Nevada.

Two Afghan Air Force A-29 Super Tucanos fly over Afghanistan on a training mission.
Senior Airman Jordan Castelan/US Air Force

The OA-X invitation to participate (ITP) issued to industry on March 17 was intended to elicit as wide a range of non-developmental light attack platforms as possible. Four will be selected to fly at Holloman. On March 3 in Orlando, Florida, Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein was quoted as saying: “Bring us what you have that fits the basic criteria of what we’re looking for. This is not something we’re looking to do a lot of research and development on.” The four types invited to compete in the experiment will be announced in May-June.

The ITP sets out the requirements a design will have to meet to be one of the four invited to Holloman. It must have a pressurised cockpit (to 25,000ft/7,620m) and two zero-zero ejection seats. Armament options must include the capability to use Raytheon Paveway II laser-guided bombs, a forward-firing 12.7mm machine gun and be capable of carrying two 500lb (227kg) munitions at the same time as the machine gun and an electro-optical/infrared sensor system. The aircraft must be night vision goggle capable, have chaff and flare defensive systems, and be capable of flying 2.5-hour missions. Bunch said the OA-X selection criteria are the ability to operate from a 6,000ft (1,829m) or shorter runway, have an average fuel flow of 1,500lb (680kg) per hour or less, “so we can go to austere locations and drive down operational cost”.

Within these broad guidelines, Bunch said, “I don’t know what the criteria for winning will be, to be perfectly honest.” However, Nowland said: “Mission profiles, [munitions] carriage requirements, mission duration, supportability and the supply chain will all be looked at in the full analysis. Vendors are going to go through an open and fair competition.”

While there has been no official announcement of which aircraft types have been invited to be considered to compete in the OA-X experiment, the timing and scope limit it to those manufacturers that can provide one or more aircraft in time to train service pilots for the experiment, and are ready to quickly respond at a US-based facility if given a production order. “We will look at the manufacturers’ readiness levels, how quickly could they transition to production,” Bunch said.

Participants are likely to be selected from aircraft such as the new-design, turbofan-powered Textron AirLand Scorpion. Its $3,000 per hour operating cost may seem a bargain compared to the current $19,000 per hour for the Lockheed Martin F-16, but it might be high enough to price it out of the OA-X competition. The Leonardo M-346FA (Fighter Attack) is scheduled to appear at this year’s Paris air show and is therefore a potential competitor, though it would have scheduling as well as cost issues.

Single-engine turboprops considered for the competition will likely include the Embraer/Sierra Nevada A-29 Super Tucano and the Textron Beechcraft AT- 6C Wolverine (which gives Textron two potential competitors). These aircraft have the cachet of operational experience. Indeed, there is concern among industry that the ITP requirements suggest that the A-29 – with a production facility in Florida and selected by the US Air Force to equip Afghanistan’s combat squadrons over the AT-6C – is being set up to emerge successful from the competition. The OV- 10 will not be participating. Boeing, which had previously proposed reopening OV-10 production, has declined the ITP, as has Lockheed Martin.

Four A-29 Super Tucanos after their arrival at Kabul, Afghanistan on March 20, 2017. The aircraft bolster the Afghan Air Force’s inventory from eight to 12 A-29s in country.
Senior Airman Jordan Castelan/US Air Force

Designs based on agricultural aircraft similar to the Iomax Archangel and its competitor L3 Technologies OA-8 Longsword, both using the Air Tractor AT- 802 airframe, would offer low procurement and operating costs, although the ejection seat and pressurisation requirements are likely to be a barrier. The Archangel will also not be submitted in response to the ITP.

What the US Air Force wants the OA-X to do

The ability of the OA-X to carry out a range of missions would, Bunch said: “Allow combat air forces to focus on the high-end fight” against near-peer opponents. The Air Force is looking for the OA-X to carry out multiple missions, not just operating as a counterinsurgency aircraft, though this will be an important capability. A 2008 Air Force study found that replacing a squadron-and-a half force of fourth-generation aircraft forward deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan with OA-X aircraft would save $300 million per year in operating costs alone.

The OA-X will be a combat-capable transition aircraft for newly trained US Air Force pilots who will go on to fly highperformance aircraft. Bunch said that an OA-X force would “need to be able to absorb fighter pilots to be seasoned and be able to address the fighter pilot shortfall”.

Nowland explained: “I have a pilot crisis. I get 350 fighter pilots per year. I have to absorb 335 per year. Currently, I cannot absorb them. By absorb, I mean … that new pilots just out of training affect a squadron’s experience ratio. Too many in a squadron can absorb all the sorties available to that squadron to become proficient, at the expense of maintaining proficiency for more experienced pilots. Bringing in additional aircraft allow us to absorb pilots more effectively. Capacity matters in producing fighter pilots.”

The OA-X would also be an economical way of producing other needed specialists such as forward air controllers who, for training, require aircraft such as the US Air Force’s Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft, but these are likely to be leaving service – sooner or later – post-2021. An OA-X would be less expensive to operate than an A-10 or an F-16 for FAC training missions.

The OA-X would be used to build capability for coalition air forces. During the Future of War Conference 2017 in Washington, DC, on March 21, General Goldfein asked the question: “How do we improve our ability to build partner capacity air forces and sustain air forces that are part of a coalition?” Bunch sees the OA-X as potentially being important to “create a building-partnership capacity”. Most of the coalition air arms operating against VEOs do not share the US Air Force’s priority for being ready to fight a near-peer adversary. The OA-X would be able to help train and develop these partner forces that could use these or similar aircraft operationally.

The OA-X would cooperate with US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) forces against VEOs. Nowland said: “How do we create an attack force that teams with AFSOC [Air Force Special Operations Command]? In 1989, there were discussions of A-10 and SOCOM teaming.” He sees an OA-X force as an opportunity for “teaming with AFSOC and seeing how we can provide a conventionalunconventional airpower mix to get into the VEO conflict.” Aircraft similar to the OA-X have been of interest to SOCOM in recent years; the command carried out the Combat Dragon 2 experiment.

While it has been years since the US Air Force had a combat aircraft shot down, there are no low-technology battle fields left in the world. The OV-10 had to have its operations over Kuwait curtailed in 1991 in the face of Iraqi air defence capabilities. Today, while the older generation threats have reached the end of their service lives, there has been a proliferation of surfaceto- air missiles that are more capable than previous man-portable designs such as the Soviet-designed 9M32 SA-7 Grail. General Hawk Carlisle, former commander of Air Combat Command, has questioned the utility of the OA-X, reflecting concerns over its vulnerability to multiple threats.

The Textron Scorpion private-venture jet will be submitted for the OA-X experiment alongside Textron’s
AT-6C. Textron
Rockwell OV-10 Broncos such as this were deployed for the Combat Dragon 2 experiment, but will not be appearing in the OA-X experiment this summer.

After the Experiment

If the OA-X experiment takes place as planned, it remains uncertain what the next steps will be. Bunch said: “The OA-X is an experiment; we do not have a programme. We have not decided how we are going to proceed after the experiment. We will look at the data collected.”

The OA-X is not included in the current Air Force long-range procurement plan, nor the Future Years Defense Plan or the Program Objective Memorandum that set out what the US Department of Defense and services will buy within the near-term future (five years). Nor is there a current validated operational requirement for such an aircraft, which would require approval by the Joint Requirement Oversight Council of the Organization on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Bunch is aware that, whatever the result of this summer’s experiment at Holloman, it would be dififlcult to transition OA-X from an experiment to a programme of record. There is no certainty the OA-X will make this transition any time soon. He set out the potential next steps for the OA-X: “We could move forward into a combat demonstration. We could do another experiment in CONUS [continental United States]. We could move into an acquisition programme. There is currently no official Air Force [OA-X] programme. It could be put on the shelf if industry is not as mature [in terms of readiness for production] as we want.”

If the OA-X programme does lead to an operational capability, the US Air Force will have demonstrated that it is able to add a new type of combat aircraft to its force mix without a lengthy and expensive development process. Recent attempts to do this have led to the procurement of aircraft intended for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq that the US Air Force has largely ushered out of service, such as the C-27J Spartan and the MC-12W Liberty.

One thing the US Air Force is emphatically not interested in doing is procuring aircraft that meet the OA-X requirements in place of higher cost and capability combat aircraft already planned for, especially the F-35A Lightning II, which the current programme of record has replacing Air Force A-10s and F-16s on a near one-for-one basis. Nowland said: “We will not substitute filling our 55 fighter squadrons to buy OA-X. OA-X has to be totally additive. We have to fix and fill our 55 squadrons first.” Bunch agrees: “Moving in this direction would be additive to what the Air Force is doing today; this would be additional to our efforts.”

What is uncertain is whether Congress will agree to be additive – the buzzword of choice for this programme – with more funding at a time when the Air Force is already planning to buy lots of aircraft. While aircraft procurement programmes tend to be popular in a way spending on sustainment and upgrades, however urgent, is not, the Air Force is already looking to Congress for additional funding to produce its high-priority Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider stealth bomber. While Senator John McCain, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been an advocate of procuring 200-300 OA-X aircraft, others in Congress will have to be won over.

The Beechcraft AT-6C Wolverine gives Textron two potential competitors in the OA-X experiment.