WASHINGTON — Over the skies of Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, three industry teams are either preparing for or already engaged in a flight demonstration of their light attack planes, hoping to entice the Air Force into buying hundreds of new aircraft.
Another sales opportunity could be quick on its heels. The Air Force and Special Operations Command (SOCOM) have noted an emerging opportunity to sell complementary light attack technology — or potentially additional aircraft — to the special operations community, and defense contractors are hungry to learn more.
In a July 31 presolicitation published on FedBizOpps.com, the service indicated interest in pursuing “platform-agnostic light attack aircraft technologies relevant to a potential future SOF [special operations force] light attack mission and/or emerging light attack platforms.”
The service plans on issuing a broad area announcement (BAA) in the near future to garner more information about “specific technological areas of interest,” which are not named in the solicitation.
Little information is currently available about the specific technologies that could be procured through the effort, currently called the Light Attack Support for Special Operations, or LASSO. However, representatives from all of the teams currently participating in the light attack experiment, also known as the OA-X demo, said they were closely following the opportunity.
“We haven’t learned a lot but we’re certainly watching it,” said Taco Gilbert, senior vice president for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for Sierra Nevada Corp., which has teamed with Embraer to offer the A-29 Super Tucano. “As we try to perceive what they would be looking for, we think the A-29 is a very attractive option.”
The A-29 is facing off against three other planes during the OA-X experiment: the Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine turboprop and the Scorpion jet offered by Textron, as well as L3 and Air Tractor’s AT-802L Longsword, a militarized version of the AT-802 cropduster.
The Air Force kicked off a demonstration of light attack aircraft on Monday as two companies — L3 and Air Tractor — made a last-minute announcement that they would participate in the experiment.
“We are excited about it and we are eager to find out what specifically they are looking for,” Tom Menker, Air Tractor’s business development and government affairs representative, told Defense News in an Aug. 8 interview.
“If they are looking for an aircraft that has the ability to add new systems quickly [and] effectively, an aircraft that has the space to integrate new sensors by virtue of the hard points we have [and] by virtue of the internal space we have to add new subsystems [and] new avionics, we feel very well positioned.”
Bill Harris, Textron’s vice president of Scorpion jet sales, also expressed interest in the opportunity, but noted that not much is known about what kinds of capabilities the Air Force and SOCOM are looking for.
“We’ll continue to monitor it,” he said Aug. 7.
The original solicitation notes that LASSO is separate and distinct from the Air Force’s light attack experiment. In comments to The War Zone, Brian Brackens, an Air Force spokesman at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, described LASSO as a “complementary” effort.
“The light attack experiment focuses on the light attack platform,” he said. “Light attack support for special ops focuses on platform agnostic capabilities (i.e. sensors, munitions & mission systems) that may be compatible with any light attack platform.”
Brackens specified that SOCOM was not interested in developing its own light attack aircraft apart from the OA-X effort. However, that does not preclude SOCOM from joining an Air Force OA-X buy, should the service decide to start a program of record.
The Air Force’s top general on Wednesday indicated he would be supportive of purchasing low-end attack aircraft to ease the pressure on state-of-the-art fighters deployed to the Middle East.
If LASSO turns out to be a search only for equipment that can be incorporated on light attack aircraft, that could be a boon for L3 Technologies. As the prime contractor and lead systems integrator on the Longsword, it is responsible for weaponizing the AT-802. Part of that role includes outfitting it with new sensors and weapon systems, many of which are of its own design, like its Wescam MX-15 electro-optical infrared sensor and ForceX mission management system.
“LASSO is meant to be platform agnostic, but the idea of being able to propose the kinds of systems that are being developed on Longsword and within other pursuits that we’ve done is certainly there,” said Pat Penland, L3’s vice president of transport programs.
Over the past decade, the U.S. military has had an on-and-off interest in light attack platforms, beginning with the Navy’s Imminent Fury demonstration in the late 2000s, where Navy special operators flew the A-29 — a fact noted by Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Gilbert. That effort was then expanded into the Combat Dragon II exercise, which saw the Navy testing the OV-10 Bronco in the Middle East. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein has called Combat Dragon II the forerunner of the current light attack aircraft experiment.
While the Air Force has no program of record in place to buy an OA-X platform, the ongoing experiments are meant to help service officials gauge whether an inexpensive, off-the-shelf aircraft could be utilized in the Middle East in lieu of fighter jets, which have a much higher operating cost and are oftentimes overly sophisticated for the counter-terrorism mission.
Special operators — who oftentimes work in more austere conditions than conventional forces — are a natural customer for the kinds of platforms participating in the OA-X experiment, most of which are optimized to conduct close-air-support missions cheaply in places where runways might not be available.
“We work a lot with our special operators and we know the types of attributes, generally, they look for in their equipment,” Gilbert said. “It needs to be versatile. It needs to be rugged. It needs to be dependable and sustainable and low cost because our special operations forces frequently operate on a little bit of a shoestring, and we think that the A-29 offers those capabilities as well.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the other participants made similar statements about their own products.