The Air Force is looking for new, cheap planes to take the place of advanced fighters — and the 2nd phase of its experiment just
- The Air Force has started the second phase of its Light Attack Experiment.
- The program is looking for cheap aircraft that can be acquired quickly to fill roles currently filled by advanced aircraft.
- Critics have said such aircraft would expose US pilots to more risks, however.
The US Air Force started the second phase of its Light Attack Experiment on Monday, putting the A-29 Super Tucano and AT-6B Wolverine aircraft through more testing at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.
Air Force officials have touted light-attack aircraft as a cheap option to address low-end threats, like ISIS or other militant groups, and free up advanced platforms, like the F-22 and F-35, to take on more complex operations.
Air Force chief of staff Gen. David Goldfein has described the light-attack aircraft as part of a networked battlefield, connecting and sharing information with partner forces in the air and on the ground.
"We're looking at light attack through the lens of allies and partners," Goldfein told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "A big part of the Light Attack Experiment is a common architecture and an intelligence-sharing network, so that those who would join us would be part of the campaign against violent extremism."
Phase 2 of the experiment
The latest phase of the Light Attack Experiment will be a three-month, live-fly experiment intended to gather more information about each aircraft's capabilities, networking ability, and potential interoperability with partner forces, the Air Force said in a release.
The first phase of the experiment took place at Holloman in August with four aircraft. In February, the Air Force announced that it had narrowed the field to the two current aircraft.
The second phase at Holloman comes in lieu of a combat demonstration, which Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in February the service would forgo.
"This second phase of experimentation is about informing the rapid procurement process as we move closer to investing in light attack," Lt. Gen. Arnie Bunch, the military deputy at the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, said in the release.
Fighter, attack, and special-operations pilots will take part in this phase of the experiment, working with test pilots and flight engineers from the Air Force, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve. They will carry out day and night missions doing air interdiction, close air support, armed overwatch, and combat search and rescue.
Addressing the Air Force's pilot shortage
Adding light-attack aircraft to the fleet would mean more airframes on which pilots could train in order to maintain their qualifications and prepare to transition to more advanced aircraft — helping address a pilot shortage caused in part by bottlenecks in the training pipeline.
"If we can get light attack aircraft operating in permissive combat environments, we can alleviate the demand on our 4th and 5th generation aircraft, so they can be training for the high-end fight they were made for," Bunch said in the release.
The Air Force has not committed to pursuing a contract for a light-attack aircraft after the experiment, however. Lt. Gen. Jerry Harris, deputy chief of staff for requirements, told Flight Global that the Air Force hasn't made a final decision, though he said service has reserved more than $2 billion over the next six years should it go forward with production.
Critics have said operating such aircraft, even in permissive environments, will expose pilots to more risk.
"The last time the US did this in Vietnam, oh boy, it really wasn't pleasant," Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for aerospace-consulting firm Teal Group, told Air Force Times in February. "They took a lot of casualties, for predictable reasons. It's low, it's slow and vulnerable, and the air defense environment has become a lot more sophisticated."
The A-29 Super Tucano is already in service with the Afghan air force, and Wilson said in 2017 that none of those aircraft had been shot down in 18 months of operations.
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