The U.S. Air Force is testing four light attack aircraft in an effort to create a more nimble, cost-efficient fleet that can support ground troops with strike and support missions in places like Afghanistan. Coined OA-X by Air Force Chief of Staff Lt. General Mike Holmes, the plan is being offered as a solution to quickly train more fighter pilots in less expensive aircraft and reduce the costs of low-intensity operations, where the threat is limited to machine guns and shoulder-fired missiles. Proponents argue such combat situations don’t require expensive long range aircraft carrying heavy weaponry, arguing less expensive light attack aircraft are a sensible replacement
The aerial showdown began July 31. The proving ground: Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. The four contenders, the Sierra Nevada/Embraer A-29 Super Tucano, Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine, Textron AirLand Scorpion and AT-802L Longsword have been flying missions night and day, demonstrating their prowess with and without weapons, conducting surveillance and simulated light attack missions. Here are the entrants:
A-29 Super TucanoThe A-29 has a two-seat cockpit and is designed by Brazilian manufacturer Embraer, who teamed up with Sierra Nevada Corporation to get the plane to market in the U.S. It can carry bombs, rockets and missiles on its five pylons, one under the centerline of the fuselage and two in each wing. The A-29 would be produced at Embraer’s facility in Jacksonville, Florida, putting it in line with President Trump’s Made in America program.
AT-6 WolverineThe second OA-X candidate, the AT-6 Wolverine, has 50 percent more horsepower than its granddaddy, the Beechcraft T-6A Texan II, which has previously been used to train Air Force and Navy fighter pilots. The AT-6 is also a two-seater and has 7 wing hardpoints for sensors and weaponry. Both the A-29 and AT-6 have an industry-standard single Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A turboprop engine and reach cruising speeds of about 320 miles an hour.
Textron ScorpionThe third competitor is the Scorpion, the only jet in the contest. The Textron AirLand two-seat, high-wing aircraft boasts two Honeywell TFE731 turbofans, thrusting it to a maximum speed of more than 500 miles an hour. The Scorpion has six under-wing stores stations, a retractable mount in its nose for a sensor turret and internal payload bay.
AT-802 Airtractor LongswordThe AT-802L Longsword was a late entrant in this military show of might and can carry numerous guided missiles and bombs, rockets, and gun pods thanks to provisions for up to four hard points under each wing and up to three hard points under the fuselage. The AT-802L can carry more fuel than the other three competitors, enough for 10 flight hours which is equivalent to a 400-mile combat radius.
Which plane will be selected? That next phase of the fly-off is likely to be an experimental deployment to a real-life combat zone. Iraq and Syria are examples of locations where the planes could fly missions to showcase their surveillance and combat ability. However, the Air Force has not confirmed a definitive location for the exercises as of yet.