Air Force testing light-attack plane

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Air Force testing light-attack plane

Four planes are in a dogfight of sorts over the skies of the New Mexico desert this month in the hope that one company will land a future lucrative Air Force contract for a light-attack plane.

Air Force officials say the flights are part of a $6 million experiment and not a competition. The Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is managing the experiment.

The Air Force will determine the cost to buy, operate and maintain the plane, if it can be mass produced quickly, and exported to other countries.

“We don’t think this mission is going to go away anytime soon and so there’s going to be a need for this kind of activity,” Air Force Research Laboratory Executive Director Jack Blackhurst said in an interview earlier this year. “It’s really a cost argument.”

Flight tests will evaluate the performance of the aircraft to determine if the Air Force should have a comparatively less expensive close air support option to battle lightly armed foes, such as the Taliban and al-Qaida, rather than flying more expensive jets such as the A-10 and F-35, officials said.

“If all we’re doing is making circles in the air and waiting for a call to drop weapons, you won’t have to do it at tens of thousands of dollars per hour operating costs,” Ravi Penmetsa, a Wright-Patterson-based light attack experimentation program officer, said in a telephone interview Tuesday from Holloman Air Force Base.

Textron AirLand’s Scorpion jet and the Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine turboprop, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Embraer Defense & Security’s A-29 Super Tucano turboprop, and L3’s and Air Tractor’s AT-802L Longsword have put stakes into the demonstration.

More than 100 flight test sorties have flown in New Mexico with tests set to continue at Holloman through the end of the month, Penmesta said. The planes have dropped inert bombs and fired guns on test ranges, and acted in a search and rescue mode, both at night and during the day, he said.

The experiment’s results will be sent to Air Force Chief of Staff David L. Goldfein.

Goldfein and Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson visited Holloman this month and Goldfein piloted two of the aircraft.

It’s possible combat trials of the light attack plane could take place next year, Air Force officials said.

“This experiment is about looking at new ways to improve readiness and lethality,” Goldfein said in a statement. “…We are determining whether a commercial off-the-shelf aircraft and sensor package can contribute to the coalition’s fight against violent extremism.”

The Air Force has not committed to buying a chosen winner. But the Senate Armed Services Committee has authorized $1.2 billion for the initiative.

U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has said in a white paper the nation may need as many as 200 of the planes by 2022 to fly counter terrorism missions and support ground troops in so-called “permissive environments” that lack heavy defenses.

Some defense analysts have expressed doubt such aircraft would be survivable against advanced air defenses in war.

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