The United States Air Force is searching for a new light attack aircraft that will serve as the next generation of ground support aircraft for the nations’ troops. The Textron Scorpion, Hawker Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine, Sierra Nevada A-29, and Air Tractor AT-802U are all being tested at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico to see which one would be most suitable for the mission.
The program, known as the Light Attack Experiment, is basically a fly-off between the four planes to determine which best fits the Air Force’s requirements. The Air Force wants an observation and attack (OA-X) plane that can fly over battlefields with minimal air defense threats (think of the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan or Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq) and not only provide firepower on demand to ground forces, but also scout ahead and gather intelligence on enemy forces. The aircraft would not be suitable for fighting countries like Russia and China that deploy advanced, fully modern air defense systems.
Basically, USAF wants a manned aircraft that can act as both a weapon and sensor platform, and is inexpensive to boot. Previously, the Air Force has used everything from A-10 Thunderbolt II attack jets to B-1B bombers in the close air support role. These aircraft are often an overmatch for chasing guerrillas, and they’re also extremely expensive to fly: a B-1B costs $61,000 an hour to fly, while the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, which the Air Force has designated the A-10’s successor, costs $42,000 an hour.
The aircraft would be much cheaper to operate and maintain and could provide the valuable ground support and intelligence gathering in a wartime situation where our troops wouldn’t be facing an enemy with sophisticated anti-aircraft defenses.
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Photo courtesy US Air Force