Air Force Concludes Flying Portion of Light Attack Experiment Following Fatal Crash

An Embraer Super Tucano A-29 experimental aircraft flies over White Sands Missile Range, N.M. USAF photo by Ethan D. Wagner.

The Air Force on Tuesday announced it will not resume the flying portion of its Light Attack Experiment, following the fatal June 22 A-29 crash that killed Navy Lt. Christopher Short and injured one other.

Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, USAF’s top uniformed acquisition officer, said the service was “very aggressively flying” until operations were paused following the crash. “We flew quite a bit of sorties, so when you combine what we did in the first phase, we have quite a bit of data,” he told reporters at the Pentagon, noting the service will continue to work with industry “to complete any remaining test requirements.”

Bunch said the Air Force is still working to analyze the data it has collected and has not yet decided how it will move forward. If the decision is made to continue, the goal is to issue a request for proposals by December with a down select anticipated next fiscal year, he added.

“Our No. 1 priority right now is supporting the safety investigation board. After the mishap occurred we analyzed where we were with the flying portions that had occurred and we decided we had enough data to not go forward and do the flying portion anymore,” Bunch said. “If we needed additional data, we could get that through our industry partners. We’ve done that on other programs.”

He declined to say what may have caused the Super Tucano to crash, pending the results of the safety investigation board, or whether the aircraft was considered a total loss, and if so, whether the Air Force or industry would assume that loss. Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said SIBs typically take about 30 days and are not releasable. Once the safety investigation board concludes, an aircraft investigation board likely will convene. The AIB findings will be released, but Stefanek said she could not say when that might happen.

“Everybody wants us to go faster and we would love to go faster. The reality is that buying the aircraft may be the easiest part of the equation,” said Bunch. The Air Staff, he added, is still trying to figure out how many pilots and maintainers would be needed for this new mission, how the service can fill those roles, where the aircraft would be based, what the concept of operations would look like, and how to export the chosen aircraft to partner nations.

“Right now, we’re still progressing down that path. We’ve not pulled back on the throttle in any shape or form,” he added.

The goal of the light attack experiment is to find a more affordable aircraft that can operate in permissible environments, freeing up USAF’s more advanced fighters to come home and train for higher-end threats.

The service launched the first phase of the experiment at Holloman AFB, N.M., in August 2017, with four participants: The Sierra Nevada/Embraer A-29 Super Tucano, which is already operational with multiple countries, including the Afghan Air Force; Textron AirLand’s Scorpion multi­role jet, once offered for USAF’s T-X trainer program; The AT-802, a militarized crop duster offered by Air Tractor and L-3 Communications; and the Textron Aviation AT-6B, an upgraded version of the T-6 Texan II USAF operates as a primary trainer.

Though initial plans called for a real-life combat demonstration to follow phase one, the service later decided to move ahead with a second phase experiment at Holloman instead. The A-29 and the AT-6 were selected to participate. The second phase kicked off in early May and was expected to last through late July. It is focused primarily on logistics and maintenance requirements, weapons and sensor issues, training, networking, and interoperability with partner forces.

180507-F-AF999-015.JPGA Beechcraft AT-6B Wolverine experimental aircraft flies over White Sands Missile Range, N.M., July 31, 2017. Photo: USAF/Ethan D. Wagner.

Experimenters were tasked with finding a network that is “100 percent exportable,” can be installed on a variety of aircraft, and then flown, said Bunch. Although USAF has already done “quite a bit of experimentation” on the network, Bunch said the service planned to continue experimentation on it using what he called “surrogate aircraft,” though he said that work will not necessarily take place at Holloman.

When asked why USAF didn’t just continue testing the network on the AT-6, he said the “system we’re trying to put in place is not just going to be limited to the light attack aircraft, we’re trying to develop a network we can put in other aircraft as well, and we can get the results out of that without necessarily flying the AT-6.” He declined to say what aircraft would serve as surrogates, saying only it could be existing USAF assets or industry aircraft.

The Air Force also announced Tuesday it was “rescheduling” the July 19 distinguished visitors day, to which it had already invited “more than 50” allies and partners to come to Holloman and see what the service had accomplished so far.

Bunch emphasized that the DV day has not been cancelled, saying the service is trying to be as transparent as possible with allies and partners as it looks for the “right time and right location” to reschedule the event.

Air Force leaders have said the light attack experiment was also a test to see if the service can partner with industry to deliver much-needed capability to the warfighter faster, and more affordably.

“Our adversaries are modernizing faster than we are, and it’s up to the United States Air Force to drive innovation,” Secretary Heather Wilson said in August 2017 during the first phase of the experimentation. “We have to think about things in new ways and identify new capabilities faster than we’ve done in the past.”

Though the fatal A-29 crash was tragic, Bunch said it doesn’t necessarily mean the light attack experiment can’t still change the way the Air Force does acquisition.

“Anytime you lose an airman, you have to pause and think a little bit about where we’re at,” said Bunch. “The loss of Lt. Short is a critical setback for America writ large, so that’s a big hit for all of us. Having said that, we were trying a different approach, we believe we have collected the data using that approach, and we believe we will use similar approaches in the future.”

See also: How the OA-X Might Change Air Force Acquisition from the January issue of Air Force Magazine.