US Changes Course on Light Attack?

In the autumn, the US Air Force (USAF) officially issued its final request for proposal (RFP) for six close air support/ground attack aircraft. Khalem Chapman explores the USAF’s decade-long push to acquire low-budget light attack platforms and the project’s future.

Issuing a final request for proposal (RFP) follows more than a decade of delays, programme changes and criticism in the USAF’s quest for a new light attack aircraft. Last year, in an October 24 statement, Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett outlined the service’s aim to procure a total of six Embraer Defense/Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) A-29 Super Tucanos and Textron Aviation AT-6B Wolverines. The order consists of three of each aircraft respectively and will support the National Defense Strategy’s focus on “building allies and partner capacity, capability and interoperability via training and experimentation.” The two platforms are to be operated by two diff erent commands to provide this.

Unlike the AT-6B, the A-29 is already in service. This is an example from the Afghan Air Force, which has had approximately 28 Super Tucanos operating in a COIN/counterterrorism role since 2016.
USAF/SSgt Larry Reid Jr

The three A-29s were off icially contracted in late 2019 and will be assigned to USAF Special Operations Command (AFSOC), based at Hurlburt Field, Florida. Here, the aircraft will be part of an instructor pilot programme for the air arm’s Combat Aviation Advisory mission – meeting increased requests from allied nations for light attack capability assistance. The three AT-6Bs will be off icially ordered in early 2020 for use by Air Combat Command (ACC), operating from Nellis AFB, Nevada, in continued testing and development of frontline tactics and techniques which will be exported to international partners to improve interoperability.

It marks a significant change from previously stated plans. At the end of 2018, the USAF said it wanted to acquire 359 aircraft, operating across eight frontline squadrons and three Flying Training Units (FTUs) through “rapid acquisition authorities granted by Section 804 of the FY16 National Defense Authorization Act” as detailed in the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) FY18 Light Attack Aircraft (LAA) annual report. The document explains the service’s intent to use these platforms alongside partner nations in tactical and instructional training – the role assigned to the six ordered aircraft. More than a year on, the USAF has yet to place a sizeable order for A-29/AT-6Bs despite the urgency held by the air arm in the DOT&E report.

Why Light Attack?

Light attack has been widely discussed within the USAF, Congress and by industry pundits since July 2009 – when the air arm publicly acknowledged a need for a new fixed-wing, affordable platform dedicated to an air-to-ground strike role and capable of performing close air support (CAS), reconnaissance and counterinsurgency (COIN) missions. The air arm outlined its desire for a type that was strategically suited to the low-intensity conflicts the US military was involved with in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the time, the service had grown concerned about the cost and overuse of advanced fourth-generation fighters in this role such as the F-15E Strike Eagle and bombers like the B-1B Lancer – something that was proving expensive, both monetarily and in operational availability. In short, the service concluded that having new, affordable aircraft specifically dedicated to a CAS/COIN role would free up the more advanced aircraft for other tasks, thus increasing the mission availability rate of those platforms, along with lowering costs per operational flying hour and preserving airframe service life for more appropriate missions. Significantly, the USAF also made no secret of its desire to retire the A-10, a move that would have less impact if a fleet of new light attack aircraft was to be procured.

An AT-6B Wolverine in flight, seen equipped with the Advanced Precision Weapon Kill System (APWKS), 0.50 calibre (12.7mm) gun pods and GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bombs.
Textron Aviation Defense

Amid concerns regarding over-worked fleets of high-end assets, there was increasing interest in light attack types from many top officials in the air arm, including former Secretary of the Air Force Dr Heather Wilson, who repeated publicly several times that the use of F-22A Raptors to destroy drug laboratories in Afghanistan was a waste of valued resources. Her opinion was noted in a Congressional Research Service (CRS) document, published in August of that year, which added “per-hour operating costs for light attack aircraft are typically about 2-4% those of advanced fighters”

In July 2009, the USAF Aeronautical Systems Center started the Light Attack/Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR) programme – following a capability request for information (CRFI) to industry, seeking a cost-eff ective strategy in acquiring light attack platforms. At the time, the air arm outlined plans to acquire 100 aircraft, with deliveries earmarked to begin in 2012, followed by an initial operational capability (IOC) scheduled for 2013. The CRFI added that the chosen aircraft would be integrated into the service’s command structure, be USAF certified and flown by existing ACC pilots. It would also be maintained by the air arm and in operations would employ existing, proven tactics and techniques. During the LAAR programme, the USAF began exploring the potential of increasing foreign military sales (FMS) for light attack aircraft under military assistance programmes – as seen in the FY2010 Foreign Military Financing plan for Lebanon. This included $40 million in CAS equipment spending. In 2015, an FMS was agreed by the US government for the sale of six Embraer Defense/SNC A-29B Super Tucanos, which are now operational with the Lebanese Air Force’s 7 Squadron – as written of in ‘Lebanese Light Attack’ by Dirk Jan de Ridder and Menso van Westrhenen, featured in the December 2019 issue of our sister publication Combat Aircraft.

LAAR did not last though – in 2010, the initial acquisition figure of 100 aircraft dropped by 85%, with just 15 examples being sought. The original planned delivery and IOC dates started to slip until a new deadline was put forward and the air arm became unsure about the main role of the new light attack platform – whether it would operate on frontline combat missions, or would focus on providing adversary pilot training and be used alongside those operated by partner nations. As the programme faced increasing delays, criticism from Congress and industry pundits began to build and by late 2015, LAAR was considered a dead project. However, in 2016, new life was given to the USAF light attack effort after Lt Gen James Holmes, the then Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements told the CRS of the USAF’s plans to restart the project. It was to take the form of two smaller programmes, the first being OA-X, which would examine existing commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) types and the second, AX-2, intended to develop a replacement for the A-10C Thunderbolt II.

An A-29 Super Tucano drops munitions over the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, in August 2019.
USAF/Ethan D Wagner

The OA-X Experiment

The USAF began the first phase of the Capability Assessment of NonDevelopmental Light Attack Platforms – more commonly known as the OA-X experiment – in July 2018. The overall aim was to determine and evaluate the performance of each candidate aircraft, along with its ability to operate closely with coalition partners. The air arm specified the requirements that candidates would need to meet to qualify for the second phase. These included an ability to take off on 6,000ft runways, have a 90% day/night mission availability rate, fly upwards of 900 operational hours per year for ten years, be off-the-shelf and affordable, burn no more than 1,500lbs of fuel per hour over 2½ hours and have positive survivability in terms of its infrared and visual signature. The candidate needed to have intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), data link and target tracking capabilities, at least a 900nm (1,036 mile/1,600km) range, along with an endurance of at least five hours with fuel reserves – enabling it to loiter for long periods. In short, the USAF wanted a survivable aircraft, capable of performing operations with little logistical support to keep it sustainable.

Despite an array of possibilities, four types were considered, including the Air Tractor/L3 Technologies AT-802L Longsword, Embraer Defense/SNC A-29 Super Tucano, Textron Aviation/Beechcraft AT-6B Wolverine – all of which have turboprop engines. Additionally it studied the turbofan-powered Textron AirLand Scorpion. In May 2018 just two candidates – the A-29 and AT-6B – went through to the second phase. Flying evaluation halted a month later, following the death of US Navy pilot, LT Christopher Carey Short, when the Super Tucano he was flying as part of the experiment crashed at the Red Rio Bombing Range, north of Holloman AFB, New Mexico. After the incident, the OA-X experiment went quiet, and many industry commentators were asking if the programme had been cancelled altogether. Then October 2019’s request for information (RFI) confirmed both aircraft will be integrated into the USAF’s vast inventory. The A-29 and AT-6B are twin-seat single-engine turboprops requiring two aircrew members (pilot and weapons systems operator) when on a mission.

Armed to the teeth – An AT-6B shows off its gun pods and APWKS. Drop tanks are equipped here, replacing the GBU12s.
Textron Aviation Defense

The aircraft will be produced domestically in the US, with the Super Tucano being assembled by Embraer Defense/SNC in Jacksonville, Florida, and the Wolverine set to be built at Textron’s facility in Wichita, Kansas. Each aircraft will be equipped to carry free-fall and laser-guided munitions, have built-in machine guns and be integrated with an electro-optical/infrared sensor.

The DOT&E FY18 Light Attack Aircraft Program annual report suggests these platforms will undertake such roles as air interdiction, armed reconnaissance, CAS, combat search and rescue, forward air control, strike co-ordination and maritime air support. However, with the USAF procuring just six aircraft (three of each) to be used solely in interoperability training with partner nations, USAF-operated A-29s/AT-6Bs in combat would be more likely to occur after 2025. Without a firm ‘wing-sized’ aircraft order or official confirmation that the USAF still intends to acquire such a large number, there is increased risk of a capability gap in a post-Thunderbolt era.

A pair of A-10C Thunderbolt IIs, registrations 81-0956 and 820651, from 354th Fighter Squadron ‘Bulldogs’ taxi to depart RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire, after taking part in the Royal International Air Tattoo 2015.
Khalem Chapman

New Love for the Warthog?

Having spent more than 40 years in operational service, the venerable Fairchild Republic A-10C Thunderbolt II – colloquially known as the Warthog – has been caught in the middle of a ‘replace or retain’ argument over the last decade. The aircraft was procured for the CAS and ground attack mission and entered USAF service in 1977, with production coming to an end in 1984. The development of the A-10 was unique, with the platform designed around its famed General Electric 30mm GAU-8 Avenger hydraulically driven rotary cannon, which was created for the anti-tank mission. The A-10 was first used in combat during the Gulf War (Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm) in 1991 and was employed in Bosnia and Kosovo throughout that decade. The aircraft returned to the Middle East in 2001, being used in Afghanistan and again in Iraq. The Warthog has been praised for its success in supporting US and coalition troops in combat.

In 2007, Boeing was awarded a $1. 1bn contract by the USAF to provide 173 sets of new wings for the A-10C to extend the aircraft’s operational life – suggesting it could remain in active service until at least 2028. With the type no longer in production, re-winging the ageing, yet respected platform became a viable solution for the USAF. The service installed new wings on a portion of its Warthogs, theoretically adding up to 10,000 operational flight hours and reducing the requirement for depot inspections, which would take the aircraft through to 2030. The last A-10C to undergo this installation, 89-0252, returned to operational service in July 2019 – as featured in the US news section of the October 2019 issue of Combat Aircraft.

Raytheon/EAI Talon laser-guided rockets have been cleared for use on the AT-6B.
Beechcraft/Jim Haseltine

Decrease in Costs

The USAF has debated the future of the Warthog within its ranks and in Congress over the last decade, arguing that aircraft procured in its light attack programmes could cover its role. This platform would be more compatible with those allied nations using such aircraft as the A-29 Super Tucano in a CAS/ground attack role. They would also be cheaper to operate, with the A-10C costing $6,000 per flying hour (as noted by Forbes in 2016) while the A-29 is priced at $1,000 – an 83% decrease in costs and suggesting that six A-29s could be flown at the budgeted equivalent of a single A-10C. However, the Warthog boasts the capability to be air-to-air refuelled and is more able to withstand damage. Additionally, it’s powered by two General Electric TF34-GE-100 turbofans as opposed to the single-engine turboprops driving the A-29/AT-6Bs, enabling it to fly on one powerplant in an emergency.

The USAF had also openly explored the potential of employing the F-35 Lightning II in the Warthog’s role, with the view that it could ultimately take over. This would not have been a cheap option for the air arm, with F-35 operational costs per hour averaging at roughly $30,000. Nor would the Lightning have been able to loiter over a combat zone for as long as the A-10 – without tanker support at least – and wouldn’t be able to carry as many munitions as the Thunderbolt.

A 500lb GBU-12 laser-guided bomb is dropped during testing.
Beechcraft/Jim Haseltine

When OA-X rose to prominence in 2016, so too did speculation surrounding the accompanying AX-2 programme, which aimed to develop a direct A-10C replacement, but since its announcement there appears to have been little progress. However, it’s possible that the two programmes were merged to save resources and costs – purchasing OTS products would be cheaper than investing in the development of a completely new aircraft.

Fast forward to today and the USAF has still not made its final decision on the future of the A-10C. The platform contributed to effective combat operations, taking part in 2011’s Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya, and since 2014 has deployed back to Iraq and later Syria in the ongoing fight against so-called Islamic State. In 2018, the USAF began an additional project to procure 112 more wing kits for the remaining Warthogs yet to go through the process. The project was funded under the A-10 Thunderbolt Advanced-Wing Continuation Kit (ATTACK) programme and in mid-2019, Boeing was once again being contracted by the USAF to build the wings. In total, the deal will be worth $999m, but the August 2019 initial contract award only requested the first 27 at a cost of $240m. Re-winging these A-10Cs in the 2020s gives the potential to maintain operations well into the 2030s. In addition, the operational test squadrons have spun back up and new avionics and weapons upgrades are now in training.

At the Air Force Association’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference in September 2019, the USAF Chief of Staff (COS), Gen David Goldfein, outlined a view of how the air arm would look in 2030. The presentation included a graphic displaying the various aircraft the service plans to operate into the next decade and the Warthog was among them, featuring in its CAS/ground attack role. However, in November 2019, the COS publicly supported the idea to retire eight different platforms – including the A-10C – from operational service by 2023 to save the USAF up to $30bn that would be reallocated in procurement spending. Despite the latest rumours, few expect wholesale retirements anytime soon.

An Afghan Air Force A-29B, employed by the Kabul Air Wing, taxies out prior to an operational sortie in September 2017.
USAF/SSgt Alexander W Riedel

Light Attack – What Next?

Following the award of contracts, the USAF appears set on further experimentation with the A-29 and AT-6B to ensure the aircraft are fully compatible with those operated by partner nations. Both SNC and Textron Aviation have commented on the matter, concluding that the Super Tucano and the Wolverine meet the interoperability requirements. When speaking of the upcoming experiment, USAF COS, Gen David Goldfein, added that it “gives us the opportunity to put a small number of aircraft through the paces and work with partner nations on ways in which smaller, aff ordable aircraft like these can support their air forces.

The USAF’s current drive with its light attack programme points more towards interoperability with partner nations than providing aircraft for its own frontline units, a slight shift in what the air arm wanted to do at the beginning of 2019. While having interoperable CAS/ground attack compatibilities between nations is beneficial for military partnerships, multination training and platform commonality across separate countries, the USAF has also maintained the idea of using the programme as a tool to generate more foreign military sales (FMS). Having only ordered a total of six aircraft for instructional (A-29) and developmental (AT-6B) purposes, industry pundits consider it looks more like a strategic move to endorse domestically produced US light attack assets to attract customers looking to purchase these types for military use. This is seen in the USAF’s Light Attack Support (LAS) programme, as part of which the air arm supplies these platforms to nations that need a dedicated CAS/ground attack aircraft. This was evidenced when the US supplied A-29 Super Tucanos to Afghanistan, with 26 being ordered by the USAF for the Afghan Air Force.

Lt Col Terrance C Keithley (right) receives a pre-flight briefing from a 416th Flight Test Squadron instructor pilot for the AT-6B Wolverine.
USAF/Ethan D Wagner

Another bump in the road to procuring such vast numbers of light attack aircraft is the USAF’s publicly acknowledged shortage of experienced pilots. In February 2019, Lt Gen Brian T Kelly, Deputy Chief of Staff Manpower, Personnel and Services, issued an FY20 Personnel Posture Statement to the Committee on Armed Services at the US Senate, detailing that the USAF “ended FY18 with a total force pilot shortage of 1,937. Shortfalls in the fighter pilot inventory are the most acute. Confirming that the numbers are already stretched thin on examples currently in service, integrating a new 359-strong fleet could exacerbate the shortage, consequently, order numbers could be cut or in-service A-29s/AT-6Bs would be stored or even sold to other nations. Employing newly trained pilots on these platforms would further add to the shortage of available aircrew for other USAF aircraft. The A-29/AT-6B requires two crew members per operational mission, compared with the A-10C’s single-seat configuration, so the USAF would need twice the number of aircrew for the Super Tucano/Wolverine than for the Warthog at a time of personnel shortage.

Despite newer, cheaper and more architecturally open platforms being explored by the USAF – along with its drive to increase interoperability with allied nations – the air arm is still finding it diff icult to part ways with the A-10. The service is taking the A-29/AT-6B in a new direction and the promise it made at the start of 2019 to procure 359 aircraft for eight squadrons and three FTUs has been put on the back-burner. Meanwhile, light attack experiments continue and inter-nation CAS/ground attack interoperability has become the air arm’s main focus.