Home » Aviation » Marines, Navy Evaluating Air Force’s Light Attack Aircraft Experiment


Marines, Navy Evaluating Air Force’s Light Attack Aircraft Experiment

An Embraer EMB 314 Super Tucano A-29 experimental aircraft flies over White Sands Missile Range in 2017. US Air Force Photo

This post has been updated to clarify that the Marine Corps would be interested in the light attack aircraft to support its training and exercises. A previous version of the article stated, due to source error, that the Marine Corps would consider using a light attack aircraft to support the joint force but did not have its own internal requirement for the airplane.

As the Air Force mulls its need for a light attack aircraft to supplement its fleet of high-end strike aircraft, the Marine Corps and Navy are also studying the program, Air Force and Marine officials told USNI News.

Department of the Navy involvement in the Air Force Light Attack Experiment (OA-X) was put in stark relief in late June after Navy pilot Lt. Christopher Carey Short died following the crash of an Embraer A-29 Super Tucano near Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.

“A mix of aircrew with combat experience are flying in the experiment. This mix includes developmental test aircrew, operational test aircrew, and experienced instructor pilots from the combat air force. We have Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps aircrew, as well as participation from the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve,” Air Force spokeswoman Maj. Emily Grabowski told USNI News.
“The light attack experimentation program was designed to gather information about non-developmental aircraft that may be suitable in permissive airspace environments, to meet current mission demands and help alleviate capacity and readiness shortfalls at a much lower cost, while increasing combat power.”

Representatives from Marine Corps Aviation and Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) have been present for the most recent round of OA-X testing out of Holloman, Grabowski told USNI News.

The AT-6 Wolverine. Textron Aviation photo.

OA-X was in a second phase of testing, set to run through the end of this month, that would put the A-29 and the Textron Aviation AT-6B Wolverine through a series of tests to gauge their suitability in uncontested environments to perform light strike and close air support (CAS) of ground troops. However, as Defense News reported this week, the tests have been canceled following Short’s June 22 crash.

Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the Air Force’s top uniformed acquisition official, said the flying portion of the experiment is over but that the effort would continue to move forward, with his office “working multiple fronts so that we can put an RFP [request for proposals] out” by December if the services continue to pursue a light attack aircraft, Bunch said, according to Defense News. “So right now, we’re still progressing down that path. I’ve not pulled back on the throttle on any way, shape or form in that area right now.”

Though the Air Force does not yet have a formal requirement for a light attack aircraft, the service is giving the program serious consideration as a way to free up higher-cost strike aircraft that are in high demand.

To that end, there is an appeal for the Marine Corps to also acquire a light attack aircraft to supplement its new fleet of emerging Lockheed Martin F-35B Lighting II Joint Strike Fighters – the most capable and expensive fighters the Marines have ever fielded.

The Senate Armed Services Committee included $100 million in their version of the Fiscal Year 2019 authorization bill for a Marine light attack aircraft. That bill language is currently being reconciled with the House’s bill, with final compromise language due out later this year.

If the Marine Corps pursued the light attack aircraft, it would be to assist in various training events rather than to fill an operational need.

“Our primary interest in the Light Attack Experiment would be to train Forward Air Controllers (FACs) and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) as well as augment ‘Blue Air’ (or friendly forces) aircraft in training events” such as the Weapons and Tactics Instructors (WTI) course to work on high-end air warfare training, the month-long Integrated Training Exercise that addresses skill sets throughout the Marine Air-Ground Task Force, and more, Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Christopher Harrison told USNI News.

By using less-expensive light attack aircraft for these training and exercise events, flight hours on the more expensive F-35Bs, AV-8B Harriers and F/A-18C Hornets could be preserved for when those aircraft are actually needed: for training pilots, for pre-deployment workups and for operations overseas.

Last month, an aviation industry source told reporters in a conference call that the Air Force could issue a request for proposal by October, Military.com reported in June. Following the RFP, a contract for a few hundred aircraft could emerge as soon as six months later, the site reported.

  • DaSaint

    Interesting. F-35B on the high end, and F/A-18E/F continuing until they’re replaced by the F-35s. So…unless they’re self-deploying, I guess they’re flying them off the LHA/LHDs??

    • Duane

      I don’t see the Navy or Marines wasting valuable and expensive hangar space on aviation amphibs for such low end/low capability aircraft … it would be a humongous waste.

      • Rocco

        Your about as brilliant as B-2!!!

        • Duane

          You make as much sense as a screen door in a submarine.

          • Rocco

            Like in 637??

    • USNVO

      I guess you skipped the part about the USMC not using them for operations but instead for JTAC and FAC training?

      The Navy also has a long standing desire to use something similar for Special Operations support. Shoot, the SEALs pretty much defined the A-29.

      • Rocco

        Copy that!

      • PolicyWonk

        Indeed – a lot of folks prefer the A-29, because it was designed from the ground up for military purposes.

        • USNVO

          What you meant to say is a lot of ignorant people believe the A-29 Marketing and think it was designed from the ground up as an attack plane (since training is a military purpose both of the aircraft are military) Are you one of the sheep as well? Baa! Baa!

          The EMB 314 “Super duper” Tucano is a derivative of the EMB 312 Tucano with a bigger engine, strengthened airframe, hard points, and added avionics. Sound familiar? (maybe they should have called the AT-6 a “Super duper” Texan?). The Tucano is a military trainer, it even competed in the JPATS competition against the T-6 (it goes without saying it lost).

          I mean really, all of this is readily available to anyone who wants to spend 15 seconds looking it up, for someone who uses PolicyWonk as their screen name I would expect more.

          Oh wait, you said “a lot of folks…”, I thought you were saying that. Well played, Sir! Well Played!

          • Duane

            A low altitude single engine prop plane is in fact the most vulnerable attack aircraft there is. All it takes is a single round of light arms fire thru the prop disk to bring it down.

            Few folks seem to understand how vulnerable prop planes are to small arms fire. In world war two, our finest air to air fighter was the P-51 Mustang, but even it suffered heavy losses in the war. However, most of the Mustang air losses were suffered in low level bombing and strafing attacks, otherwise known as ” close air support”.

            Leave the low and slow CAS work to unmanned aircraft, or if manned, preferably by heavily armored aircraft with multiple turbine engines like the A10 or AH64 that can’t be taken down by a lucky hit from an AK47.

          • Greg

            Mustangs had a liquid cooled engine, so any hit in its rather large radiator, and the engine seized. Any single engine attack bird, jet powered or not, is vulnerable to ground fire. Look at the loss rates for the A-4s in Vietnam and the rates for the F-16 in Desert Storm. There is a reason the A-10 was invented. The key word for the procurement of these birds is in in a “permissive” environment. As the RFP has not yet hit the streets, we don’t know what “permissive” means

          • Rocco

            What losses of F-16’s!!! A-4’s I agree with as they were all in the line of fire!! Stop trying to add fuel to the fire here as you don’t know what your talking about! FYI the A-10 was in service before the F-16 designed to take out armor!!

          • old guy

            I gree with you, except the A-10’s problem was not its capability but that A-20 pilots wrere looked down upon.

          • Duane

            P-47s suffered just as many losses CAS missions as P51s … the P-47 used an air cooled engine … no coolant to leak out.

            A hole in a engine coolant system is not catastrophic, just requires that the pilot land the aircraft fairly soon therafter.

            But a simple, small nick in a high rpm rotating prop blade, caused by a bullet strike, causes the prop blade to immediately disintegrate. An unbalanced prop … such as one missing part of one blade … causes the engine to violently rip itself out of the fuselage and the whole aircraft rips apart in midair.

            It is the prop disk that is the primary vulnerability of prop CAS aircraft.

          • old guy

            It might interest some that years ago Martin had a ground attack A/C that had 20 MM cannons firing out laterally from the wing. The pilot would bank the plane with its tip pointing at the tsrget. when he pressed the trigger the autopilot would fly a cone with the target as its apex. much more difficult for ground fire to hit.

  • Duane

    It seems unlikely that the Marines or the Navy will buy the light attack crew killers.

    I doubt that the Air Force will buy and fly many either .. rather it seems most likely that the AF is footing the development and selection bill for low end third world allies like Columbia or Liberia to buy and fly these for drug interdiction missions or to suppress rebels who aren’t getting high end arms from Russia or Iran.

    • On Dre

      If so thats fine. I have a feeling ALOT of people are noticing the best way to fight insurgance who want the bronze age back is to hit them with the 20th century. They do not need whiz bang. Just the simple airpower to win the battlefield. If small fragile governments can win and survive then the long war is won. The lesson taugh is that the answer lies in technology and the future. Not looking back for some time of religious perfection.

    • JimNtexas

      In this case of the A-29, the reverse is true. The A-29 was developed for drug interdiction and third world air forces.

  • b2

    This may be the perfect aircraft to meet all USMC fixed wing close air support needs in tandem with the Cobra. In fact this may replace most their fixed wing F&A needs. Notso good fro Bell-Boeing, LM, NG, etc.. though….

    The USMC should never be outfitted soley to have its own self-contained service based on amphibious assault operations…The US Navy/USAF are the major air power services to provide the “air supremacy” framework and conditions for the USMC to operate ground forces….. That is the nature of true airpower support. The USMC bringing their “own everything” ends up being master of none…. Sure is expensive, too… Think about it..this aint a inter service competition based on who has the most glorious history or the best tv commercial…

    • Rocco

      That would be a cluster FK!! Goes to show you continually don’t know what your talking about!!

    • Duane

      The Marines are very happy with what they have now … they just want more of it, including F-35s and Ospreys

  • Ed L

    Simple, lite and they could be flown by 20year old Warrant Officers. Like our Army does with multi million dollar aircraft

    • Carney3

      The USMC has the lowest percentage of officers, and probably the highest reliance on and authority given to NCOs, of all the services, but there’s an important historical reason flying and especially combat flying jobs have been reserved to officers – namely that the job inherently involves making a decision whether or not to open fire.

      • Ed L

        That statement in my opinion is a borderline cop out. You forgot the Marine Flying Sgt’s the Army flying sgt’s who were made warrant officers and flew tens of thousands of hours in combat WW2, Korean War, Vietnam and in South West Asia. Also the Naval Aviation Pilot (NAP) the last four Marines pilots (flew in combat) retire in 1973. The last Navy Aviation Pilot retired in 1981. Keep it simple and just let the Army have the A-29 and AT-6 and fly CAS with our attack helicopters. A 4 year college degree doesn’t guarantee good decision making.

        • Rocco

          That was different then!! Even now any officer today needs permission to engage attack unless fired upon!! Especially from an aircraft!!

          • Ed L

            So those Army Warrant Officers currently flying Army Rotary and Fixed wing in Afghanistan Iraq and All over the World don’t count! Same rules of engagement goes for Army Warrant Officers flying Apache, Blackhawk, Chinook Helicopters and A dozen types if Fix Wing aircraft. Many Army Warrant Officers have had flying careers that span over 3 decades. Sad so sad. So many gifted pilots lost to the Army.

          • Rocco

            Yes indeed! But at least they have a job carrier when they get out!

          • Ed L

            Job carrier? That’s hilarious. Army Warrant Officers Aviators are the most proficient Pilots in the US Military. They average more flying hours than the other serves combined. Many leave the Army to go into Civilian Aviation positions. And many stay to become the best. The majority of the Army instructor pilots are warrant officers For example Chief Warrant Officer 4 David R. Lilly, 3rd General Support Aviation Battalion, 2nd Aviation Regiment, 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, reached a milestone that very few military pilots ever achieve when he surpassed 10,000 flight hours as an Army rotary-wing aviator. Oh Army Rotary Wing Pilots also get fix wing training and get to fl

      • Rocco

        Kudos!

    • Rocco

      And???

    • JimNtexas

      The USAF can’t retain pilots with 04/5 pay and six figure bonuses. No way would they hire WOs to be pilots. If O-5 pay won’t retain a pilot, then for sure WOs would be bail at the first sign of a light in the door!

    • Donald Carey

      Name me an aircraft currently in use by our military that ISN’T a multi-million $ aircraft…

  • Carney3

    I wonder if these prop planes could operate from the deck of an amphibious assault ship.

    • Rocco

      Good question! Not sure what a full power take off of each aircraft is? Especially loaded with weapons! The F-35B’S use about half the length of the ship!!

      Heck if Doolittle was able to get B-25’s to take off the Hornet anything is possible!! Lol

  • Deplorable jmiky

    Just bring back the F4U Corsair, if we’re going back to prop jobs for close air support.

    • Rocco

      Stupid comment!!! But….. I’m a big fan of the Bird!!

    • William Sager

      You realize that not a single component required to produce F4U Corsairs still exist. So right away you would most likely use substitutes. You will never get folks to tool up production of the huge fuel hungry R-2800 Pratt & Whitney. So most likely you would substitute a turbo prop. And the body design is of a single seat fighter plane, not a two seat attack. So changes will be made there as well. In short you will find yourself building a modern two seat turbo prop.

      • Deplorable jmiky

        Relax, it was a joke. I’ve had more replies than you could shake a stick at. Have a great day.

        • Rocco

          Just two!! Hardly enough to shake a stick!!

      • Rocco

        Not to mention you can’t see over the cowl until the tail raises!!

        • Curtis Conway

          Marine CAS should be able to operate off of LHA/LHD large aviation platforms. The OV-10 Bronco does that, and so much more.

    • muzzleloader

      How about the P-47 thunder bolt? Eight 50 cals!

    • pete39

      Easiest to bring back to the fleet would be the A-1 Skyraider, used in Nam.
      I never understood why the Corps didn’t adapt the A-10 Warthog.

      • Deplorable jmiky

        Me either.

  • Chesapeakeguy

    The article references the Navy aviator who was killed a few weeks ago flying a Air Force plane. I said then on these boards that I believed they were evaluating low tech means for delivering ordinance and for other missions. Whether anything comes of that remains to be seen. I am assuming another ‘angle’ is in play here, because unmanned systems seem to be a logical candidate for such an attack platform. This seems to say it all: “The light attack experimentation program was designed to gather
    information about non-developmental aircraft that may be suitable in
    permissive airspace environments, to meet current mission demands and
    help alleviate capacity and readiness shortfalls at a much lower cost,
    while increasing combat power.”

    ‘Non-developmental’ means basically ‘ready-to-go’. It also sounds like the program is for all intents and purposes over. It sounds to me that the AF is or was looking for a platform that they can some day purchase on a moment’s notice and get some number of them in the air quickly. Note how they put things: “…to gauge their suitability in uncontested environments to perform light strike and close air support (CAS) of ground troops”. UNCONTESTED! That sounds like taking on drug cartels and guerilla ‘movements’ like those going on in The Philippines. I also wonder if the groundwork is being laid for a near future ‘Flying Tigers’ or a modern day ‘La Fayette Escadrille’? Or at least having potential instructors who could go to such environments and provide the hands-on-training for those who will use them?

    • Mk-Ultra

      Isn’t that pretty much just saying they want these planes for training?

      • Chesapeakeguy

        Well technically, the military wants ALL planes for ‘training’. ‘Train in the way you’re going to fight’. Right now they are ‘evaluating’ these particular planes. Nobody knows if they will make the grade. It appears to be a matter of first things first.

    • Rocco

      Agreed!! In the event that a pilot is shot down we have a platform that can do search & rescue missions that’s able to keep insurgents at bay until heavier firepower can arrive or helo! The advantage of 2 sets of eyes is a plus.
      Bird dog & skyraider in one aircraft.
      I would go with T-6 version as it’s already a Trainer & familiar aircraft, not to mention cost savings.

    • Jason

      It is true that there is a lot of overlap between the capabilities of drones and light attack, but there still are some advantages to having eyeballs in the cockpit especially when coordinating with allied ground forces. Light attack also has a much lower logistical footprint and isn’t particularly susceptible to jamming etc. like we are seeing in Syria.

      • Chesapeakeguy

        Agreed. But, the article is quite clear that they want these planes for ‘uncontested’ situations. My point about the drones is about situations where an adversary might or will have a capability to shoot down air platforms. I think the actual application would be to have a plane that can be deployed to places that do not have advanced military capabilities, that can be flown (possibly) by American pilots until the locals can be properly trained in them. AND, the plane itself has to be able to facilitate rapid training and employment.

    • Curtis Conway

      If your last thought is in fact the goal, then one would think that all concerned would stick to the platform that EVERY US Navy Aviator and USAF Pilot can already fly . . . safety. When things start going wrong, then the muscle memory is already there. However, fidelity for the safety of the aviators is already a second seat because they are claiming low & slow in a groundfire environment does not require two engines.

      • Chesapeakeguy

        Well, as you say, ‘one would think’. My bet is nothing will come of this. They are ‘evaluating’ this particular plane. It doesn’t sound like they have much for anything beyond that. Remember that their KEY requirement is operating in ‘uncontested environments’. I don’t really know what that means in this day and age. It seems that anyone can acquire some lethal weaponry if they have the means. The Marines don’t want it for combat, they want it to train FACs. Again, if a FAC is needed, I don’t know what an ‘uncontested environment’ is.

        • Curtis Conway

          Once again, a Proven FAC aircraft is the OV-10 Bronco. Guess when you find a winner you got to leave it behind as quickly as possible, and Heaven forbid you improve it. There may still be some OV-10s fly in the US Forest Service. Awesome aircraft.

          • Chesapeakeguy

            No arguments from me about that. If someone is Heck bent on reinventing the wheel, I am powerless to stop them. I also openly question if anyone involved with this is serious about seeing it through to completion? If ‘uncontested environments’ are the only ones that are anticipated, I say bring back the A-1 Skyraider. But, that requires a catapult, so that’s out.

          • Curtis Conway

            The A-1 Skyraider would do a deck roll. You could put paratroopers in the UA-1E utility version. Maybe we can get one of our Eastern European friends that make radial engines for the AN-2s for our new CAS aircraft ;-P

  • Jason

    The Marine Corp is a much more logical place for the (OA-X) program than the Air Force… and not just as a training aircraft. 1st, the Marines actually do have a need for a faster, longer range, high persistence attack aircraft to escort Ospreys. The A-29 and AT-6 have the speed, range and payload to fit the bill. The AH-1Z’s neither have the range nor the speed to keep up. And the F-35B’s are simultaneously too fast and lack the persistence. Any place that you would risk an Osprey you would also be willing to risk a light attack plane, so the added vulnerability is irrelevant.

    2nd, the Marines are much more likely to be equipped to set up austere forward operating bases independent of other branches. The Air force generally requires either more infrastructure or active Army participation to accomplish a similar feat. Thus the Air force, if it wants to keep a small footprint, would likely require a friendly nation to host/defend its OA-X planes operating in theater. The Marines would require no such support.

    Furthermore the planes don’t even need to be navalized. They could either fly to the theater independently or, they are actually light enough to be carried by Ospreys or Ch-53’s as regular sling cargo off of transport ships after the forward operating base is established.

    • Rocco

      Kudos great post!

    • Curtis Conway

      e.g., the OV-10 Bronco. It does a lot of things, not just CAS, and can operate off of an LHA.

      • Jason

        True. I’m just not sure how the mechanics of operating an A-29 (or equivalent) on a modern LHA would work, given the need to trap the prop planes. It may not be worth the risk when you have several 100 million dollar plus F-35B’s lining the runway while having to rely on a jury-rigged cable to stop the OA-X. By not using OA-X on the big deck, but instead transporting them as cargo, you also conceivably double the expeditionary fighter force without doubling the light carrier force.

        • Curtis Conway

          The OV-10 Bronco didn’t have a hook and operated off the deck more often that most realize. Those contra-rotating reversible props can do a lot. The only time you wouldn’t come back is single engine. The OV-10 provides SOF support, logistical transport into rough runways, and para-support aircraft as well, and can provide ordinance delivery and direct fire support.

          The A-29 with its Battle for Britain guns in the wings, cannot do such things. If a single engine superwizbang is needed, go with the one that everyone is already comfortable with. The beefed up Beechraft T-6B US Navy Trainer platform in the form of the AT-6 Wolverine with its extra two wing stores stations, and already compliant NATO ordinance delivery system using the A-10C Thunderbolt II “Warthog” combat system.

          Someone keeps pushing this in the direction of SNC, and I think they all wear stars of Blue USAF uniforms. To do so is a bad decision in every aspect, except to line the pockets of those who will financially benefit. It took the life of a good USN Aviator to prove it. When things start going bad, and the neurons are popping a million miles a minute during an emergency situation, being in a familiar platform really helps a lot, particularly when they are this flimsy. A practical demonstration of this truth SHOULD NOT have to happen in COMBAT, but the USAF just can’t see it.

          • Jason

            I thought generally the OV-10’s did not land on carriers operationally since they lacked tail hooks. Trying to return to a carrier with extra fuel and unspent ordnance would probably have exceeded the Bronco’s ability to stop in 800 feet. As I understand it, the Marines generally used aircraft carriers to ferry the planes to the theater where they could take off easy enough in a stripped down configuration, but would subsequently operate from land bases. In other words no real difference from just transporting them by any ship and unloading them.

            As for the A-29 vs the AT-6… The A-29 is a much better expeditionary fighter (apparently). The last run off conducted by the U.S. Air Force between the two planes on behalf of Afghanistan, wasn’t really close, or so I hear. Apparently, the A-29 was designed from the ground up to operate from rugged air bases including the location of the air intake the type of tires, etc. The AT-6 wasn’t designed to operate from rugged forward bases. That’s pretty much the biggest difference. As for why the naval aviator died, we haven’t found out the details yet. Literally anything might have happened. Better to not rush to judgement. Truth be told I couldn’t care less which one wins, as long as the choice is justifiable.

          • Curtis Conway

            If an OV-10 Bronco EVER landed on a aircraft carrier, it would have landed amidships to the bow. The OV-10 Broncos operated off of LHA/LHDs. They didn’t do it a lot, but it was done more than most people think. Some think they only took off and went ashore, and that happened often, but it is not that difficult to land an OV-10 Bronco on the LHA deck when steaming into the wind with those contra-rotating, reversible propellers.

  • old guy

    Anyone ever hear of sumpin’ called the A-10?

  • John McHugh

    It’s good to see that the USMC is investigating their own attack aircraft that can loiter over troops more efficiently. Imagine having more consistent close air support.

    I hope that the Light Attack Experiment (OA-X) can incorporate carrier based capabilities such as landing gear, hook, etc. It would be a shame not to capitalize on this opportunity to incorporate this.

    I don’t have a dog in this fight but I have been following the competition with interest and saw value in most proposals.

    I believe that they were only utilized by the USN and USAF but it’s too bad they couldn’t just bring back the A-1 Skyraider with some basic upgrades. A FLIR / camera targeting pod with all the usual toys such as GPS, and laser. Revise the cockpit with a simple but up to date MFDs. Maybe update the engines for more power and efficiency but those radials were killer. Maybe, even utilizing the two-seat platforms for better scene management ?