The US Air Force has kicked off the procurement for another round of wing replacements for A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft, known affectionately by many as the Warthog. With new wings, the A-10s will help fill a gap left by the delayed volume delivery of F-35A fighters, which were intended to take over the A-10’s close air support (CAS) role in “contested environments”—places where enemy aircraft or modern air defenses would pose a threat to supporting aircraft.
While the A-10 will keep flying through 2025 under current plans, Air Force leadership has perceived (or was perhaps convinced to see) a need for an aircraft that could take over the A-10’s role in low-intensity and uncontested environments—something relatively inexpensive and easy to maintain that could be flown from relatively unimproved airfields to conduct armed reconnaissance, interdiction, and close air support missions. The replacement would also double as advanced trainer aircraft for performing weapons qualifications and keeping pilots’ flight-time numbers up.
So, last year the Air Force kicked off the Light Attack Experiment (OA-X), a four-aircraft competition to determine what would best fit that bill.
In the first phase, the Air Force tested four aircraft at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. Three were turboprop aircraft already in the inventory of some US allies in some form: AirTractor and L3’s AT-802L Longsword; Sierra Nevada and Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano; and Textron and AirLand LLC’s Beechcraft AT-6B Wolverine. The fourth, the only jet aircraft in the group, was Textron and AirLand’s Scorpion. Now, the Air Force has begun a second phase and has cut the field to two: the Beechcraft AT-6B Wolverine, and the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano.
Initial plans for combat testing of OA-X aircraft were dropped from this round of the program. Instead, more data will be gathered on the mission capabilities of the aircraft, as well as an examination of how well they can be integrated into Air Force networks and operations with allies’ forces. Depending on just how successful the aircraft are, the Air Force could begin orders for delivery to both the US and allies’ air forces in fiscal year 2019. The Air Force has set aside $2.4 billion in its budget for the program, though Air Force officials have not committed to buying an aircraft based on the OA-X tests.
Both of the aircraft are already largely known quantities. The US bought the Super Tucano for the Afghan air force, where it has already been used in combat operations, and older versions of the aircraft have seen combat with the Colombian Air Force in counterinsurgency operations. And the AT-6 is essentially a combat upgrade of the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II, a trainer already used by the US Air Force and Navy. An armed version of the T-6 is flown by Greece’s Hellenic Air Force. But like the Super Tucano being flown in OA-X, the AT-6 has significant networking, sensor, and weapons upgrades that make it capable of carrying laser-guided rockets, Hellfire missiles, and laser-guided bombs.
Concerns have been voiced about how vulnerable pilots in these aircraft will be in combat environments, flying missions that for the most part have become operations for armed drones flown from half a world away.
But manned aircraft like the OA-X candidates could be a valuable resource for keeping the entire Air Force’s readiness levels up, as Air Force Maj. Joel Bier pointed out in his May 2017 essay on War on the Rocks. He also writes about how OA-X would give Joint Tactical Air Control units aircraft with which they could regularly perform air strike training with. JTACs are the airmen on the ground who direct during close air support and strike operations alongside other services’ troops.
The OA-X aircraft could also help ease the Air Force’s pilot shortage in a number of ways, while also helping revive the Air Force Reserve and Air Guard squadrons that have flown the A-10 and the F-16 but have seen their flight time dwindle or evaporate entirely as aircraft are retired.