U.S. Air Force Procuring a Limited Number of Light Attack Aircraft

Afghan A-29 seen arriving at Moody Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Dillian Bamman)

The U.S. Air Force released Requests for Proposals on October 24 for a limited number of Textron Aviation AT-6 Wolverine and Sierra Nevada Corp/Embraer A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft.  An A-29 contract is expected by the end of the year, followed by an AT-6 contract in early 2020.

The AT-6 Wolverine will be used by Air Combat Command at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, for continued testing and development of operational tactics and standards for exportable, tactical networks that improve interoperability with international partners.

The A-29 Super Tucano will be used at Hurlburt Field, Florida, by Air Force Special Operations Command to develop an instructor pilot program for the Combat Aviation Advisory mission in order to meet increased partner nation requests for light attack assistance.

The Air Force has conducted multiple rounds of testing as part of its OA-X program ahead of a potential acquisition of a fleet of affordable low-end light attack aircraft to supplement its existing combat aircraft capabilities.   The idea is that a cheaper aircraft could conduct sorties in permissive environments that do not necessitate the advanced capabilities offered by costly jet aircraft.

An AT-6 experimental aircraft flies over White Sands Missile Range in 2017. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Ethan D. Wagner)

The Air Force included $35 million in its FY20 budget request for continued OA-X light attack experimentation, with another $35 million allocated in each of FY21 and FY22.  Budget documents tentatively show an initial allotment of $160 million for OA-X procurement in FY22, followed by $400 million in each of FY23 and FY24.  However, it remains to be seen if the multiple rounds of experimentation will result in a significant procurement effort.

In its markup of the FY20 defense spending bill, the Senate Appropriations Committee said it does not support the Air Force’s FY20 funding request for continued experimentation.   The committee only included $2 million in its markup, to support development of a secure tactical network that would be utilized by a light attack fleet.  However, the committee does support procurement of light attack aircraft. The committee’s markup therefore adds $210 million for six turboprop aircraft, and the committee encourages the Air Force to fund procurement of light attack aircraft in its FY21 budget request.

In FY19, Congress added $100 million to the defense budget for OA-X aircraft and long-lead materials should the Air Force launch a formal procurement program.

About Shaun McDougall

Shaun McDougall is an analyst at Forecast International covering the U.S. and Canadian defense markets.

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