The Air Force on Friday is expected to formally invite companies to participate in a light-attack aircraft demonstration this summer, the service's top uniformed acquisition official said.
"This is … the innovative spirit of trial and error," Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the service's military deputy for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Acquisition at the Pentagon, said during a defense breakfast outside Washington, D.C. on Thursday.
"We're trying to keep this as broad as we can so that industry may have something that's very innovative that we haven't thought about," he said.
Bunch reiterated the light-attack concept -- should the "experiment" prevail and the Air Force choose to fund it -- is a needed platform for current manpower levels.
"Why are we even exploring this concept? The need is, we need to be able to absorb fighter pilots," Bunch said. "Another reason is we want to look at a concept so we could have a lower operating cost, a lower unit cost, for something to be able to operate in a permissive … environment than what I would require a fourth- or a fifth-gen aircraft to be able to operate in."
It would "minimize the wear-and-tear" of current fighters such as the F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-22 Raptor in the long run, he said.
"But we can't do it at the expense of mission accomplishments," he added.
With the concept, dubbed OA-X, pilots could also focus on training for a high-end fight.
Bunch cited 15-plus years of prolonged conflict in the Middle East, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the Islamic State and other extremist groups extending their influence in the region, "we don't see an end to that," he said.
"We need to look and see if there are ways to save costs and do this in an efficient and effective manner … [and] it could create a building partnership capacity. Not every nation we want to build a partnership with needs and F-16 or an F-35 [Joint Strike Fighter]," Bunch said, referring to places such as Afghanistan.
Bunch joins a handful of service leaders who support the potential of an OA-X jet buy, which include Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, Acting Secretary Lisa Disbrow and newly-inducted Air Combat Command commander Gen. Mike Holmes.
Goldfein earlier this month confirmed the competition will take place at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. When asked at the Air Force Association's Air Warfare symposium in Orlando what the Air Force is looking for, Goldfein said, "This is commercial, off-the-shelf, that we could rapidly employ in combat."
Goldfein and other leaders have said the light attack plane would not replace the service's beloved A-10 Warthog.
Officials haven't described in detail how the experiment would be conducted or what it would entail — whether it would be a flight demonstration such as a fly-off, simulation trials or just a viewing of various industry light attack aircraft.
The experiment would constitute as a "phase I" approach to the concept, Goldfein said. A "phase II" of the experiment would send the aircraft downrange to the Middle East for a Combat Dragon II-like exercise which demonstrates if a turboprop-powered or light attack aircraft can be viable in a permissive environment, he said.
Disbrow said, "We're going to look through our requirements as we go through [them], especially in the strategic, defense review, and we're going to look at our fleet, we're going to look at off-the-shelf, and we're going to see if there's a business case there.
"We have to look forward, we have to say, ‘Where do we think the demand is going to be?'" she said at the symposium. "We're not marketing -- we're looking at our capability demands and we're going to match our projected inventory needs to that within the budgets that we're allowed."