T-X Trainer Is Coming But What About Light Attack?

The first of two production-ready aircraft built for the US Air Force's advanced pilot training competition took to the skies over St. Louis Lambert International Airport, Dec. 21, 2016, for a successful first flight. (Boeing photo)
The first of two production-ready aircraft built for the U.S. Air Force's advanced pilot training competition took to the skies over St. Louis Lambert International Airport, Dec. 21, 2016, for a successful first flight. (Boeing photo)

The Air Force is set to award a contract for its new T-X trainer this year and will get a funding boost in fiscal 2019 pending congressional approval.

The service is requesting $265 million for the program, a $159 million boost from the previous funding year, according to the latest budget documents.

The Air Force wants to buy 350 trainer jet aircraft to replace its current Northrop Grumman Corp.-made T-38 Talon trainers at a time when it's struggling to replenish its fighter pilot ranks.

The service in December launched a potential $16 billion competition to build a T-X replacement. Firms publicly competing for the contract include Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp., and Leonardo S.p.A.

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But the Air Force has not requested additional funding for its so-called "light attack" experiment, known as OA-X, officials tell Military.com.

"We expect to use fiscal year 2018 experimentation funding for the next phase of the experiment scheduled for summer 2018," Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Emily Grabowski said in a statement.

"We'll use the experiment to develop concepts of operation and further define requirements for fielding a force of U.S. light attack aircraft across the five-year budget plan," she said Monday.

OA-X is not currently a program of record.

Grabowski said the service is developing and reviewing potential "rapid acquisition alternatives" with a decision anticipated by fiscal 2020.

"Of particular focus are rapid fielding and rapid procurement strategies that leverage existing capabilities and emphasize little or no development," she said.

In November, key lawmakers agreed to provide the Air Force with $400 million in the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act to explore buying a new light attack aircraft for missions in the Middle East.

The Air Force this month selected two aircraft to undergo more demonstration fly-offs, among other exercises, at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona.

The service intends to test the Textron Aviation AT-6 Wolverine and the Sierra Nevada/Embraer A-29 Super Tucano from May to July 2018 at the base, it said in a release Feb. 12.

The Air Force said the phase II testing will not include a combat demonstration or an opportunity to test the aircraft overseas in a combat scenario.

"Rather than do a combat demonstration, we have decided to work closely with industry to experiment with maintenance, data networking and sensors with the two most promising light attack aircraft -- the AT-6 Wolverine and the A-29 Super Tucano," said Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. "This will let us gather the data needed for a rapid procurement."

In August, four aircraft -- AirTractor and L3's AT-802L Longsword; Sierra Nevada and Embraer's A-29 Super Tucano; and Textron and AirLand LLC's Scorpion, as well as their AT-6B Wolverine -- conducted live-fly exercises, combat maneuver scenarios and, on some occasions, weapons drops during its first phase demonstration at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.

Service officials have been making the case for the OA-X.

"A light attack aircraft would not only provide relief to our 4th- and 5th-generation aircraft, but also bolster our interoperability, so we can more effectively employ airpower as an international team," Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said at the time of the phase II announcement.

Goldfein in September told Military.com that the light attack initiative should be viewed as a new way of doing business -- not just a plane, but part of a larger communications system.

OA-X "is actually not about the hardware -- it's about the network," he said, adding he wants the service to train more often with coalition partners, who may not have high-end fighter aircraft.

"Can I -- at the same that we're looking at a relatively inexpensive aircraft and sensor package -- can I connect that into a network of shareable information that allows us to better accomplish the strategy as it's been laid out?" he said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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