The Air Force intends to conduct an informal experiment of a potential light attack fighter aircraft the service could use in ongoing counterterrorism air campaigns, the service’s top general said Wednesday.
Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said the Air Force is looking to programs such as Textron’s Scorpion to potentially provide an inexpensive fighter capable of performing close-air support missions.
“We’re right now just having this dialogue with industry partners,” Goldfein told reporters after speaking at an American Enterprise Institute event in Washington, D.C. “Making sure they know that we’re putting this on — dates, still to be determined. But probably around the springtime.”
Goldfein, saying there is no request for information at this time, did not elaborate on how the experiment would be conducted or what it would entail — whether it would be just a viewing of various industry light attack aircraft, simulation trials or flight demonstration.
His comments come days after Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain released his white paper assessment on how the Defense Department should move forward in military spending.
The former Navy pilot stressed that, while the service should sustain its A-10 Thunderbolt II fighter fleet for close-air support, “the Air Force should procure 300 low-cost, light-attack fighters that would require minimal work to develop.”
“These aircraft could conduct counterterrorism operations, perform close-air support and other missions in permissive environments, and help to season pilots to mitigate the Air Force’s fighter pilot shortfall,” McCain said. His comments echo those of officials such as Lt. Gen. James “Mike” Holmes, the service’s deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, who recently said the aircraft could help dilute the fighter pilot shortage and gradually increase readiness.
McCain suggested the Air Force could procure “the first 200 of these aircraft by fiscal year 2022.”
Goldfein said it is important to note, “This isn’t a competition, it’s an experiment.”
“We’re going to do this experiment and see what’s out there, and I’m expecting many of the companies to come forward,” he said.
Brig. Gen. Edward Thomas, director of Air Force public affairs, said Goldfein — who hasn’t officially signed off on the experiment, dubbed OA-X — “believes it does make sense to look at opportunities to provide a … cheaper, attack-type aircraft that can do the close-air support mission, that other countries, allies, can fly also. And do this in a way that doesn’t require an F-22 or an F-35 over a permissive environment,” he said, mentioning Iraq and Afghanistan.
With the current budget, “I don’t believe there is anything specifically programmed for it right now,” Thomas said, noting the experiment is in its early stages and doesn’t have any funding attached.
The additional light attack aircraft — which would not replace the service’s beloved A-10 Warthog — “would relieve the pressure on other aircraft, maintenance crews, [and] it would give us some turning space with our other combat platforms,” Thomas said.
In September, Holmes told Defense News that a less expensive aircraft could help the service alleviate the strain of maintaining its infrastructure, growing and training new pilot ranks, and adding more resources while simultaneously contributing to ongoing conflicts.
“We don’t think it would cost a lot of money, and it’s designed just to help us get our arms around [questions like], ‘What can you actually do? Does it actually contribute? Can it survive in different threat environments?’ ” Holmes said at the time.