The U.S. Air Force is on the market for a new light aircraft intended for use in reconnaissance and air support missions in conflicts that are unlikely to include advanced anti-aircraft weapons systems, such as in Afghanistan and Syria.  They have now narrowed their selection down to four potential candidates, and some of them bear a striking resemblance to attack aircraft one might find in a history book.

The Air Force Program taking place in New Mexico, dubbed the “Light Attack Experiment” or OA-X for short, is basically a good old-fashioned fly-off, in which these four airplanes will take part in a number of exercises intended to demonstrate their abilities to meet or exceed the Air Force’s dictated requirements.  While the U.S. Air Force already has a vast arsenal of aircraft to employ in observation and attack operations, it has become clear that utilizing the latest, most advanced, and by the nature of those qualifications, the most expensive, aircraft in the U.S. fleet for low-risk operations is an unnecessary waste of a great deal of money.

While many people are familiar with the vast expenses associated with the development and production of an advanced multi-role aircraft like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, many tend to forget that these complex aircraft also have a large dollar value associated with their operation once they’ve reached the fleet.  Two of the more expensive planes to see use in air support operations over areas with minimal air defenses are the massive B-1B Lancer Bomber and the aforementioned F-35.  The B-1B costs an incredible $61,000 per hour to operate, with the F-35 coming in at a comparably paltry $42,000.

Hawker Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine; Courtesy of Beechcraft

While this expense would certainly be justified against a near-peer opponent like China or Russia, and honestly would even hold up in terms of ensuring our pilot’s safety against less technologically capable opponents like North Korea – each of these platforms represent a technological overkill in a conflict against enemies like ISIS or the Taliban; akin to using a Barret .50 caliber sniper rifle for a job more suited to a snub nosed .38 revolver.

Sierra Nevada A-29; courtesy of the Sierra Nevada Corporation

The OA-X’s only non-propeller driven competitor, the Textron Scorpion, is likely the most expensive aircraft to build and operate in the contest, at a price point of $20 million (versus the F-35’s $90+ million per aircraft) and clocks in at just $3,000 per hour to operate.  Over 1,000 flight hours then, the most expensive option the Air Force is testing would still represent a savings of $39 million in operating costs over the advanced F-35, and even a $14 million savings over the somewhat inexpensive A-10.  Although the figures were not released for the other three aircraft, their less expensive propulsion systems would likely equate to even deeper savings.

Textron Scorpion courtesy of Textron

It’s with that hourly operational expense in mind that the Air Force is not moving to procure a new fleet of light attack aircraft that can loiter safely above the 10,000 foot ceiling most shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile launchers can reach, while still offering fire support to troops on the ground.  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 if one of these platforms can fit that bill.

None of the aircraft tested in New Mexico are capable of sporting the massive GAU-8/A 30-millimeter gun that has made the A-10 not only famous, but among the most coveted in air support platforms for those fighting on the ground, but each is equipped with a variety of hard points intended to permit the mounting of modular weapons platforms like guided bombs or a lighter caliber gun pod.  Of course, “lighter” is a relative term, as one of the aircraft being tested, the AT-802U, is able to carry not just one but two GAU-19/A, three-barreled .50 caliber Gatling guns.  Two of the four contestants also carry the L-3 MX-15Di sensor pod designed to allow the craft to detect and track enemy targets at long ranges even under cover of darkness.

Air Tractor AT-802U; Courtesy of Air Tractor

John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has already allocated $1.2 billion to purchase 300 aircraft to fill this new role in combat support and observation over the coming five years.  There is no guarantee that one of these four aircraft will meet the Air Force’s criteria, but it seems likely that at least one will.  As a result, chances are good that one of these “blast from the past” looking planes may well be the newest addition to our nation’s Air Force sooner, rather than later.