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USAF chief eyes light attack platform

Photo: The Textron AirLand Scorpion. Jamie Hunter


US Air Force chief of staff Gen Dave Goldfein has spoken out regarding possible plans to acquire 300 low-cost, light-attack, fighters. He described the possible purchase of such a platform, to be used for counter-terrorism missions, as a ‘great idea’.

Goldfein says the USAF may ‘experiment’ with commercial off-the-shelf designs as early as this spring.

The proposal was put forward in a paper written by Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who said the USAF could procure the first 200 by Fiscal Year 2022.

It will lead to speculation that the Textron AirLand Scorpion is finally set to be evaluated by the USAF and may be selected.

A new, low-end, light attack ‘OA-X’ aircraft has said could be sought to complement the A-10C in the short term, while a more capable ‘A-X2’ could eventually replace the ‘Warthog’ in the longer term.

With plans to extend A-10 retirement past 2022, the OA-X could tap into existing offerings such as the Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine or the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano and would likely be for around 20 aircraft, while A-X2 would be designed for the low- to medium-threat environment and could be filled by a new design or an existing aircraft.

However, there are to major questions. Can the USAF afford OA-X and more importantly is there a will to fly a type such as the A-29 Super Tucano in combat operations. Even the A-10 is considered vulnerable to surface fire, despite its impressive rugged design and track record in ‘Desert Storm’. It was only deployed to the ‘Inherent Resolve’ theater once it was clear that surface-to-air threats were minimal. Types such as the A-29 or AT-6 may be considered simply too much of a risk for US airmen to be flying in these scenarios — hence Gen ‘Hawk’ Carlisle’s assertion that permissive environments are a thing of the past.

However, we have seen a number of studies into this type of mission, most recently with a pair of OV-10G+ Broncos, which operated in the CENTCOM theater last year.

Gen ‘Hawk’ Carlisle, the outgoing boss of Air Combat Command, has been nothing short of glowing in his praise for the F-35A Lightning II in 2016 and has shown little support for a new platform to help mitigate the retirement of the A-10C. In Carlisle’s view, money diverted to a so-called AX-2 program would be dollars taken away from the F-35, B-21 and KC-46.

When it comes to the F-35, any CAS-related discussion inevitably comes back to the high-end threat. The F-35 can operate in contested environments where others cannot. It can also help in the air superiority fight before turning its hand to ground targets. The proliferation of advanced air defense systems bolsters the argument to maintain the program for 1,763 Air Force F-35s. The Lightning II is surely set to redefine the future of multi-role aircraft.

But, the F-35 is a big and expensive hammer to crack a small nut. With this in mind, perhaps advocates of the OA-X and AX-2 are correct to insist that the USAF needs a lower-tier CAS platform, at lower cost, that is easily able to operate in low- to medium-threat environments and thus avoid the unnecessary burning of precious F-35 service life.

We are told that CAS isn’t about the platform, but it’s about the mindset and the training. But surely it is about the platform when cost is factored in.

Gen David Goldfein, the USAF chief, told the Senate Armed Services Committee during his nomination hearing on June 16 that the service should not retire the A-10 ‘in the near term’. Goldfein said he is more concerned about the CAS community than he is about the future of the A-10 specifically.

Clearly the current ‘Inherent Resolve’ operation in Syria and Iraq has driven the need to retain the ‘Warthog’ for the time being, but it has also resulted in raising the profile of CAS once again.

In April 2016, a draft requirement document doing the rounds in Washington argued the USAF’s need for a new attack aircraft optimized for CAS. Lt Gen James Holmes, was the USAF deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, but he is the incoming ACC boss. Holmes said of the proposal document: ‘We’ll compare that to what we have available, compare it to keeping the A-10, and compare it to what it would take to replace [the A-10] with another airplane.’

Gen Holmes says you need to hit the ‘capability/affordability line about right’. Some Air Force funding has reportedly been earmarked for a study of a light attack derivative of the USAF’s next-generation T-X trainer in addition a brand-new options also being looked at. The latter may not yield the savings sought by retiring the A-10. Alternatively, the light attack version of the T-X may sway the USAF’s decision on which way to jump on that competition.

The USAF put forward the A-10 retirement decision as a cost-saving measure. The current mission has clearly changed the rhetoric over a direct replacement platform for the A-10 — but it will all come down to money. The USAF has solidified its position in that it knows it needs an A-10 replacement aircraft. It wants that new aircraft to have an operating cost of around one quarter that of the A-10, and as Gen Welsh acknowledged, it needs to be ‘optimized for the low-to-medium threat environment, not a high-threat environment.’


Posted in Features, News


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