Air Force testing light-attack plane

Four planes are in a dogfight of sorts over the skies of the New Mexico desert this month in the hope that one company will land a future lucrative Air Force contract for a light-attack plane.

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Flight tests will evaluate the performance of the aircraft to determine if the Air Force should have a comparatively less expensive close air support option to battle lightly armed foes, such as the Taliban and al-Qaida, rather than flying more expensive jets such as the A-10 and F-35, officials have said.

The Air Force will determine the cost to buy, operate and maintain the plane, if it can be mass-produced quickly and exported to other countries.

Air Force officials say the flights are an experiment and not a competition.

The Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is managing the experiment, dubbed the OA-X.

“We don’t think this mission is going to go away anytime soon and so there’s going to be a need for this kind of activity,” Air Force Research Laboratory director Jack Blackhurst said in an interview earlier this year. “It’s really a cost argument.”

Textron AirLand’s Scorpion jet and the Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine turboprop, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Embraer Defense & Security’s A-29 Super Tucano turboprop, and L3’s and Air Tractor Inc.’s AT-802L Longsword have put stakes into the demonstration.

Flight tests continuing through August at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.

The experiment’s results will be sent to Air Force Chief of Staff David L. Goldfein.

Goldfein and Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson visited Holloman this month and Goldfein reportedly piloted two of the aircraft.

“This experiment is about looking at new ways to improve readiness and lethality,” Goldfein said in a statement. “…We are determining whether a commercial off-the-shelf aircraft and sensor package can contribute to the coalition’s fight against violent extremism.”

The Air Force has not committed to buying a chosen winner. But the Senate Armed Services Committee has authorized $1.2 billion for the program.

U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has said in a white paper the nation may need as many as 200 of the planes by 2022 to fly counterterrorism missions and support ground troops in so-called “permissive environments” that lack heavy defenses.

Some defense analysts have expressed doubt such aircraft would survive against advanced air defenses in war.

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