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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

Air Force “Light Attack” planes are conducting attack missions, close air support, combat search and rescue operations and armed overwatch as part of a three month “live-fly” assessment to find the right platform for the service.

The “fly-off” tests and experiments have started the 2nd phase of the program, aimed at developing a lighter attack plane able to maneuver close to the terrain, attack enemy ground forces and network US and allied forces in combat.

“The Air Force is gathering enough decision-quality data through experimentation to support rigorous light attack aircraft assessments. We're finalizing requirements documentation and developing an acquisition strategy,” Maj. Emily Grabowski, Air Force spokeswoman, told Warrior Maven.

The emerging aircraft is envisioned as a low-cost, commercially-built, combat-capable plane able to perform a wide range of missions in a less challenging or more permissive environment. These planes, therefore, are optimized for counterinsurgency and other types of warfare wherein the US Air Force largely had aerial dominance. Given this mission scope, the light attack planes would of course not need the speed, weaponry or stealth attributes of a 5th generation fighter.

The combat concept here, were the Air Force to engage in a substantial conflict with a major, technically-advanced adversary, would be to utilize stealth attack and advanced 5th-Gen fighters to establish air superiority - before sending light aircraft into a hostile area to support ground maneuvers, fire precision weapons at ground targets from close range and even perform on-the-spot combat rescue missions when needed.

“The Light Attack aircraft would be additive capability and capacity, allowing 4th and 5th Generation aircraft to focus more on operations in the contested environments,” Grabowski said.

The idea is to save mission time for more expensive and capable fighter jets, such as an F-15 or F-22, when an alternative can perform needed air-ground attack missions – such as recent attacks on ISIS.

Following an initial Air Force Light Attack aircraft experiment last August, which included assessments of a handful of off-the-shelf options, the Air Force is now streamlining its effort to continue testing only two of the previous competitors from last summer - Textron Aviation’s AT-6 Wolverine and the Sierra Nevada/Embraer A-29 Super Tucano.

“Alternatives for a rapid acquisition are in development,” Grabowski said.

Air Force officials provided these assessment parameters to Warrior Maven, during the analysis phase following last summer’s experiment:

-Basic Surface Attack – Assess impact accuracy using hit/miss criteria of practice/laser-guided bomb, and unguided/guided rockets
- Close Air Support (CAS) – Assess ability to find, fix, track target and engage simulated operational targets while communicating with
the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC)
- Daytime Ground Assault Force (GAF) – assess aircraft endurance, range, ability to communicate with ground forces through unsecure and secure radio and receive tactical updates
- Rescue Escort (RESCORT) – Assess pilot workload to operate with a helicopter, receive area updates and targeting data, employ ballistic, unguided/guided rockets and laser-guided munitions
- Night CAS – Assess pilot workload to find, fix, track, target and engage operational targets

A-29 Super Tucano

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US-trained pilots with the Afghan Air Force have been attacking the Taliban with A-29 Super Tucano aircraft.

A-29s are turboprop planes armed with one 20mm cannon below the fuselage able to shoot 650 rounds per minute, one 12.7mm machine gun (FN Herstal) under each wing and up to four 7.62mm Dillion Aero M134 Miniguns able to shoot up to 3,000 rounds per minute.

Super Tucanos are also equipped with 70mm rockets, air-to-air missiles such as the AIM-9L Sidewinder, air-to-ground weapons such as the AGM-65 Maverick and precision-guided bombs. It can also use a laser rangefinder and laser-guided weapons.

The Super Tucano is a highly maneuverable light attack aircraft able to operate in high temperatures and rugged terrain. It is 11.38 meters long and has a wingspan of 11.14 meters; its maximum take-off weight is 5,400 kilograms. The aircraft has a combat radius of 300 nautical miles, can reach speeds up to 367 mph and hits ranges up to 720 nautical miles.

AT-6 Light Attack

The Textron Aviation AT-6 is the other multi-role light attack aircraft being analyzed by the Air Force. It uses a Lockheed A-10C mission computer and a CMC Esterline glass cockpit with flight management systems combined with an L3 Wescam MX-Ha15Di multi-sensor suite which provides color and IR sensors, laser designation technology and a laser rangefinder. The aircraft is built with an F-16 hands on throttle and also uses a SparrowHawk HUD with integrated navigation and weapons delivery, according to Textron Aviation information on the plane.

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Kris Osborncan be reached