Air Force OA-X Light Attack Aircraft/SOCOM Armed Overwatch Program

Updated November 24, 2021
Air Force OA-X Light Attack Aircraft/SOCOM Armed
Overwatch Program

On October 24, 2019, the U.S. Air Force issued a final
On July 31, 2017, the Air Force began what it called the
request for proposals declaring its intent to acquire a new
Capability Assessment of Non-Developmental Light Attack
type of aircraft. The OA-X light attack aircraft is a small,
Platforms, an “experiment” to determine the utility of an
two-seat turboprop airplane designed for operation in
OA-X, its ability to operate with coalition partners, and to
relatively permissive environments. The start of a formal
evaluate initial candidate aircraft. The first phase included
program followed a series of Air Force “experiments” to
the Sierra Nevada/Embraer A-29, Textron/Beechcraft AT-
determine the utility of such an aircraft.
6B, and Air Tractor/L3 OA-802 turboprops, variants of
which are in service with other countries, and the
After the Air Force experiments ended, the program passed
developmental Textron Scorpion jet. First-phase operations
to U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) as the
continued through August 2017.
“Armed Overwatch” program, with a goal of acquiring 75
aircraft for a somewhat different mission. In November,
Figure 1. Sierra Nevada/Embraer A-29
2021, SOCOM issued its own request for proposals, with a
different set of competitors.
Why Light Attack?
During 2018, then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson
often expressed the purpose of a new light attack aircraft as
giving the Air Force an ability to free up more sophisticated
and expensive assets for other tasks, citing the example of
using high-end F-22 jets to destroy a drug laboratory in
Afghanistan as an inefficient use of resources. Per-hour
operating costs for light attack aircraft are typically about
2%-4% those of advanced fighters.

She and other officials also noted that the 2018 National
Source: U.S. Department of Defense.
Defense Strategy put a greater emphasis on potential
Note: Shown in Afghan service.
conflicts against capably armed nation-states, further
stressing a need to minimize the use of high-end assets in
Figure 2. Textron/Beechcraft AT-6
other types of conflict. (For more on that document, see
CRS Insight IN10855, The 2018 National Defense Strategy,
by Kathleen J. McInnis.)
Conversely, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had
criticized the Air Force as focusing excessively on the kind
of high-end, near-peer conflicts envisioned in that strategy;
the light attack aircraft can be seen as making the Air Force

more relevant to low-end and counterinsurgency warfare.
Source: U.S. Air Force photo by Ethan D. Wagner.
Figure 3. Air Tractor/L3 OA-802
In January, 2016, LtGen James Holmes (then Air Force
Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and
Requirements) told CRS the Air Force was considering
starting two programs related to ground-attack operations.
One, called OA-X, would examine existing, “off-the-shelf”
light attack aircraft to add a low-end capability for use in
relatively permissive air environments such as Afghanistan
and Iraq. The other, “AX-2,” would develop a replacement
for the existing A-10 Thunderbolt II. The Air Force
subsequently publicized these concepts, although they were

not included in the fiscal 2017 budget submission.
Source: L-3.

Air Force OA-X Light Attack Aircraft/SOCOM Armed Overwatch Program
Figure 4. Textron Scorpion
Congressional Action
The Administration’s FY2020 request for Aircraft
Procurement, Air Force included $35 million for light
attack aircraft. Although the Administration did not request
any funding specific to the OA-X experiment or subsequent
procurement in the FY2017-FY2019 budget submissions,
the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for
Fiscal Year 2019 as enacted (P.L. 115-232) included $300
million to procure a fleet of OA-X planes and long-lead
materials. Neither the act nor its accompanying report
Source: Darin LaCrone/Textron Airland.
specified a quantity of aircraft.
The experiment’s second phase began May 7, 2018, with
The Administration’s FY2021 budget request proposed
the A-29 and AT-6B continuing in the program. The flying
$101 million to begin purchasing armed overwatch aircraft.
portion of the program concluded in June 2018.
Congress, in Section 163 of the report accompanying the
William M. (Mac) Thornberry National Defense
A presolicitation notice issued August 6, 2018, limited
Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 (H.Rept. 116-617),
participation in the proposed contract to Sierra Nevada and
denied that request and prohibited funds from being used to
Textron; did not specify a number of aircraft to be acquired
acquire armed overwatch aircraft through FY2023.
(Air Force estimates have varied from 20 to “a couple of
squadrons” to 300) nor a target unit price; and predicted a
Section 162 of the report accompanying the Senate Armed
formal solicitation in December 2018, with contract award
Services Committee version of the FY2022 National
in the fourth quarter of 2019.
Defense Authorization Act limited expenditures for armed
overwatch pending the receipt of reports required in the
The October 24, 2019, request for proposals split the
FY2021 NDAA.
proposed buy between A-29 and AT-6, with two to three
each. In response, two AT-6s and three A-29s were
Potential Issues for Congress
delivered to the Air Force. The AT-6s are based at Moody
Questions to consider in evaluating the OA-X/Armed
AFB, GA, for testing and development of operational
Overwatch program might include the following:
tactics; Air Force Special Operations Command has the A-
29s in an instructor pilot program for air advisers at
 What is the value of adding this capability to the Air
Hurlburt Field, FL. The Air Force has not yet discussed
Force or SOCOM?
why the buy was split between the two aircraft.
 Might this mission be better accomplished through other
After initially considering five aircraft, SOCOM’s
means, such as remotely piloted aircraft (“drones”)?
November 2021 request for proposals included the AT-6
and AT-802U from the Air Force experiments, and the
 Does having such aircraft in U.S. service assist in
Sierra Nevada/PZL Mielec MC-145. The aircraft selected
training and operating with partner nations? If so, what
will replace SOCOM’s Sierra Nevada/Pilatus U-28s. The
is the value of that to the United States?
FY2022 budget submission requested $170 million for six
armed overwatch aircraft.
 Should the U.S. government be involved in promoting
sales of similar aircraft to other nations, and if so, how?
Figure 5. Sierra Nevada/PZL Mielec MC-145B
 Is a procurement restricted to a few specified
competitors fair and appropriate?
 Is it efficient or operationally preferable to operate more
than one type of light attack aircraft?
 Is the use of “experiments” rather than a formal
selection process a useful innovation in streamlining
acquisition, a circumvention of rules, or might it be
described some other way? Does that judgment change
when (as in this case) the procurement is intended for an
off-the-shelf, rather than developmental, acquisition?
 The Air Force has publicly stated it is experiencing a
shortage of trained pilots. Would creation of a light

attack fleet exacerbate that shortage or assist in the
Source: Sierra Nevada photo.
training and absorption of new pilots?

Jeremiah Gertler, Specialist in Military Aviation

Air Force OA-X Light Attack Aircraft/SOCOM Armed Overwatch Program

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