Firing laser-guided rockets at enemy ground locations, dropping precision-guided bombs from thousands of feet up in the air and coordinating closely with ground-attack controllers to identify targets, Light Attack aircraft being evaluated by the Air Force for combat missions after conducting a wide range of operational scenarios last summer at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.
The combat scenarios were part of experimenting with the a range of missions sets likely to be needed in attacks against terrorist fighters and other instances where the US Air Force has air supremacy - but still needs maneuverability, close air support and the ability to precisely destroy ground targets.
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Air Force officials familiar with the experiment provided Scout Warrior with a detailed breakdown of the mission scenarios now being evaluated:
- 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
The emerging OA-X Light Attack 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.
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While several news reports have indicated that the Air Force was very impressed with the technical maturity of the commercial offerings, service officials themselves are not yet ready to comment upon initial findings.
The Air Force will soon provide a complete analytical breakdown of results for senior service leaders to inform the decision-making calculus moving forward, Air Force Spokeswoman Col. Sharon Evans told Scout Warrior.
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"The final experimentation report and associated recommendations are in development and will be deliberated by senior leaders when complete," Capt. Emily Grabowski told Scout Warrior in a written statement.
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 the current attacks on ISIS.
During the first week of the experiment, Air Force pilots flew basic surface attack missions in Textron Aviation's AT-6 Wolverine turboprop, as well as in Sierra Nevada Corp. and Embraer's A-29 Super Tucano, an Air Force statement said.
Air Force pilots also completed familiarization flights in Textron Aviation's Scorpion jet, as well as in Air Tractor Inc. and L3 Platform Integration Division's AT-802L Longsword.
Depending upon the performance of the aircraft, it is quite likely one of the offerings could soon be sent to perform combat missions in the ongoing war against ISIS, Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch. Military Deputy, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force, Acquisition, told Scout Warrior in an interview earlier this year.
The Light Attack effort is designed to bring near-term, combat-ready technology to current conflict; its low-cost and potential mission-enhancing characteristics has inspired support and attention from senior members of Congress - and is closely followed by Air Force leaders who have been visiting and observing the experiment at Holloman.
“We’re experimenting and innovating, and we’re doing it in new and faster ways,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said in a written service statement. “Experiments like these help drive innovation and play a key role in enhancing the lethality of our force.”
Light Attack aircraft, able to hover close to the ground and attack enemies in close proximity to US forces amid a fast-moving, dynamic combat situation, would quite likely be of substantial value in counterinsurgency-type fights as well as near-peer, force-on-force engagements. The combat concept here, were the Air Force to 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, fire precision weapons at ground targets from close range and even perform on-the-spot combat rescue missions when needed.
“This experiment is about looking at new ways to improve readiness and lethality,” Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David Goldfein, said in an Air Force report. “Working with industry, and building on the Combat Dragon series of tests, we are determining whether a commercial off-the-shelf aircraft and sensor package can contribute to the coalition fight against violent extremism."