New Air Force light attack plane moves quickly toward combat

New Air Force light attack plane moves quickly toward combat
New Air Force light attack plane moves quickly toward combat

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. (Aug. 1, 2017) A Embraer EMB 314 Super Tucano A-29 experimental aircraft flies over White Sands Missile Range. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Ethan D. Wagner)

The Air Force has entered the next phase in its development of a new, combat-ready Light Attack aircraft designed to maneuver close to terrain, support ground combat operations and operate closely with U.S. allies in an irregular warfare scenario.

The service is now entering a proposal phase for its new aircraft, designed to lead to a production contract by next year.

The Light Attack planes are optimized for counterinsurgency and other types of warfare wherein the U.S. Air Force largely has aerial dominance. Given this mission scope, the planes are not intended to mirror the speed, weaponry or stealth attributes of a 5th generation fighter - but rather offer the service an effective attack option against ground enemies such as insurgents who do not present an air threat.

"We must develop the capacity to combat violent extremism at lower cost," Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said in an Air Force report. "Today's Air Force is smaller than the nation needs and the Light Attack Aircraft offers an option to increase the Air Force capacity beyond what we now have in our inventory or budget.”

The combat concept here, should the Air Force engage in a substantial conflict with a major, technically-advanced adversary, would be to utilize stealth attack and advanced 5th-Gen fighters to establish air superiority - before sending light aircraft into a hostile area to support ground maneuvers and potentially fire precision weapons at ground targets from close range.

Following an initial Air Force Light Attack aircraft experiment last year, which included assessments of a handful of off-the-shelf options, the Air Force streamlined its approach and entered a 2nd phase of the program. The second phase included “live-fly” assessments of the aircraft in a wide range of combat scenarios. The service chose to continue testing two of the previous competitors from its first phase - Textron Aviation’s AT-6 Wolverine and the Sierra Nevada/Embraer A-29 Super Tucano.

A formal Air Force solicitation specifies that both Textron and Sierra Nevada will now help draft proposal documents for the aircraft.

“The Light Attack Aircraft will provide an affordable, non-developmental aircraft intended to operate globally in the types of Irregular Warfare environments that have characterized combat operations over the past 25 years,” the Air Force solicitation says.

The emerging aircraft is envisioned as a low-cost, commercially-built, combat-capable plane able to perform a wide range of missions in a less challenging or more permissive environment.

The idea is to save mission time for more expensive and capable fighter jets, such as an F-15 or F-22, when an alternative can perform needed air-ground attack missions – such as recent attacks on ISIS.

Air Force officials provided these Light Attack assessment parameters to Warrior Maven, during the analysis phase following last summer’s experiment:

- Basic Surface Attack – Assess impact accuracy using hit/miss criteria of practice/laser-guided bomb, and unguided/guided rockets
- Close Air Support (CAS) – Assess ability to find, fix, track target and engage simulated operational targets while communicating with the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC)
- Daytime Ground Assault Force (GAF) – assess aircraft endurance, range, ability to communicate with ground forces through unsecure and secure radio and receive tactical updates
- Rescue Escort (RESCORT) – Assess pilot workload to operate with a helicopter, receive area updates and targeting data, employ ballistic, unguided/guided rockets and laser-guided munitions
- Night CAS – Assess pilot workload to find, fix, track, target and engage operational targets

A-29 Super Tucano

U.S.-trained pilots with the Afghan Air Force have been attacking the Taliban with A-29 Super Tucano aircraft.

A-29s are turboprop planes armed with one 20mm cannon below the fuselage able to shoot 650 rounds per minute, one 12.7mm machine gun (FN Herstal) under each wing and up to four 7.62mm Dillion Aero M134 Miniguns able to shoot up to 3,000 rounds per minute.

Super Tucanos are also equipped with 70mm rockets, air-to-air missiles such as the AIM-9L Sidewinder, air-to-ground weapons such as the AGM-65 Maverick and precision-guided bombs. It can also use a laser rangefinder and laser-guided weapons.

The Super Tucano is a highly maneuverable light attack aircraft able to operate in high temperatures and rugged terrain. It is 11.38 meters long and has a wingspan of 11.14 meters; its maximum take-off weight is 5,400 kilograms. The aircraft has a combat radius of 300 nautical miles, can reach speeds up to 367 mph and hits ranges up to 720 nautical miles.

AT-6 Light Attack

The Textron Aviation AT-6 is the other multi-role light attack aircraft being analyzed by the Air Force. It uses a Lockheed A-10C mission computer and a CMC Esterline glass cockpit with flight management systems combined with an L3 Wescam MX-Ha15Di multi-sensor suite which provides color and IR sensors, laser designation technology and a laser rangefinder. The aircraft is built with an F-16 hands on throttle and also uses a SparrowHawk HUD with integrated navigation and weapons delivery, according to Textron Aviation information on the plane.

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