On Monday the US Air Force began the second phase of its Light Attack Experiment (OA-X) to gather data ahead of a potential buy of aircraft that could perform close air and special operations support in permissive air defence environments.
The first phase was undertaken at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, last August. Four aircraft took part: the Textron AT-6B Wolverine, Sierra Nevada/ Embraer A-29 Super Tucano, L-3/ Air Tractor AT-802L LongSword and Textron Scorpion. The LongSword and Scorpion were eliminated following phase one. OA-X is being undertaken to examine whether light attack aircraft can operate effectively and safely in the close air support role, and also inform a potential selection decision should the US Air Force proceed with the light attack concept.
Data gained during OA-X Phase 2 would allow a rapid production decision to be reached. The second phase will again be undertaken from Holloman, and will last for three months.
During that period a range of experienced test pilots – including those from the special operations world – will fly a wide range of missions by day and night. Combat disciplines to be assessed not only include close air support, but also cover air interdiction, search and rescue support, and convoy overwatch. The maintenance and support elements of the flying operations will also be monitored and assessed.
A key feature of the OA-X programme is to explore the aircraft’s potential interoperability with assets from partner nations. According to the Air Force Posture Statement for 2018: “Retaining irregular warfare as a core competency at a lower cost, and strengthening our alliances are key elements of our National Defense Strategy.”
A common architecture and intelligence-sharing network with allied nations would likely form a part of future light attack operations if the Air Force proceeds with the purchase.
The Wolverine is an attack-optimised version of the T-6 that is the standard US military basic trainer, itself based on the Pilatus PC-9.
The Super Tucano serves with a number of nations and, following a temporary cease-work order due to a legal challenge, is now in production under a US Air Force contract that provides 20 aircraft to the Afghan air force.