Air Force OA-X Light Attack Aircraft Program

Updated November 19, 2019 Air Force OA-X Light Attack Aircraft Program On October 24, 2019, the U.S. Air Force issued a final request for proposals declaring its intent to acquire a new type of aircraft. The OA-X light attack aircraft is a small, two-seat turboprop airplane designed for operation in relatively permissive environments. The announcement of a formal program follows a series of Air Force “experiments” to determine the utility of such an aircraft. countries; and the developmental Textron Scorpion jet. First-phase operations continued through August 2017. Figure 1. Sierra Nevada/Embraer A-29 Why Light Attack? In a number of venues during 2018, then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson 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 have also noted that the 2018 National Defense Strategy put a greater emphasis on potential conflicts against capably armed nation-states, further stressing a need to minimize the use of high-end assets in other types of conflict. (For more on that document, see CRS Insight IN10855, The 2018 National Defense Strategy, by Kathleen J. McInnis.) Source: U.S. Department of Defense. Note: Shown in Afghan service. Figure 2. Textron/Beechcraft AT-6 Conversely, Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had criticized the Air Force as focusing excessively on the kind of high-end, near-peer conflicts in that strategy; the light attack aircraft can be seen as making the Air Force more relevant to low-end and counterinsurgency warfare. History In January, 2016, LtGen James Holmes (then Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements) indicated to CRS that 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 Iraq and Afghanistan. The other, dubbed AX-2, would develop an eventual replacement for the existing A10 Thunderbolt II. The Air Force subsequently publicized these concepts, although they were not included in the fiscal 2017 budget submission. On July 31, 2017, the Air Force began what it called the Capability Assessment of Non-Developmental Light Attack Platforms, an “experiment” to determine the utility of an OA-X, its ability to operate with coalition partners, and to initially evaluate candidate aircraft. The first phase included four aircraft: the Sierra Nevada/Embraer A-29; Textron/Beechcraft AT-6B; Air Tractor/L3 OA-802 turboprops, variants of which are in service with other Source: U.S. Air Force photo by Ethan D. Wagner. Figure 3. Air Tractor/L3 OA-802 Source: L-3. Air Force OA-X Light Attack Aircraft Program Figure 4. Textron Scorpion The October 24, 2019, request for proposals splits the proposed buy between A-29 and AT-6, with two to three each. The AT-6s would be used at Nellis AFB, NV, for testing and development of operational tactics; the A-29s would be used by Air Force Special Operations Command in an instructor pilot program for air advisers at Hurlburt Field, FL. The Air Force has not yet discussed why the buy was split between the two aircraft. Potential Issues for Congress Questions to consider in evaluating the OA-X program might include the following:  What is the value of adding this capability to the Air Force?  Is the Air Force the appropriate service to operate these Source: Darin LaCrone/Textron Airland. The experiment’s second phase began May 7, 2018, with the A-29 and AT-6B continuing in the program. The flying portion of the program concluded in June 2018; release of the presolicitation notice can be seen as the formal end of the OA-X experimental phase. A presolicitation notice issued August 6, 2018,  limited participation in the proposed contract to Sierra Nevada and Textron;  did not specify a number of aircraft to be acquired (Air Force estimates have varied from 20 to “a couple of squadrons” to 300) or a target unit price;  predicted a formal solicitation in December 2018, with contract award in the fourth quarter of 2019; and aircraft?  How large a fleet is appropriate?  Might this mission be better accomplished through other means, such as remotely piloted aircraft (“drones”)?  Does the presence of such aircraft in U.S. service assist in training and operating with partner nations? If so, what is the value of that to the United States?  Should the U.S. government be involved in promoting sales of similar aircraft to other nations, and if so, how?  Is a procurement restricted to two specified competitors fair and appropriate?  Is it efficient or operationally preferable to operate more than one type of light attack aircraft?  is available at The A-29 would be built and assembled in Jacksonville, FL; the AT-6 in Wichita, KS. 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 for procurement of a fleet of OA-X aircraft and long lead materials. Neither the act nor its accompanying report specified a quantity of aircraft.  Is the use of “experiments” rather than a formal downselect 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 training and absorption of new pilots? Jeremiah Gertler, Specialist in Military Aviation IF10954 Air Force OA-X Light Attack Aircraft Program Disclaimer This document was prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). CRS serves as nonpartisan shared staff to congressional committees and Members of Congress. It operates solely at the behest of and under the direction of Congress. 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