The U.S. Air Force, faced with a potentially protracted war against the Islamic State, aging fighter jets and a shrinking force of pilots, is examining the adoption of a new fleet of “light-attack” planes that are both a throwback to earlier U.S. operations and a current staple of militaries in South America and the Middle East.
The aircraft would be able to carry out airstrikes against the Islamic State and other militants for less money than the F-16 Fighting Falcon or the F/A-18 Super Hornet. Options available could include Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano propeller plane, which the United States has delivered to Afghanistan and other allies, and Beechcraft’s AT-6, a version of which the U.S. military already uses in pilot training.
Air Force generals have discussed the proposal several times in recent weeks, saying that the planes could supplement existing aircraft, including drones, in regions where there is no enemy capable of shooting down U.S. planes. Gen. David L. Goldfein, the service’s top officer, said the proposal is part of an ongoing dialogue that dates back years and could soon include an experiment in which private companies demonstrate what the planes can do.
“I’m not interested in something that requires a lot of research and development here,” Goldfein said during a recent appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I’m looking for something that I can get at right now, commercial, off the shelf, low-cost, that can operate in an uncontested environment, that can deliver the capabilities that we need, that can also be something that perhaps our allies and partners that are in this fight with us” use.
Goldfein added: “If you assume this fight will be going on for a little bit of time, there is room and time for us to get after this.”
The experiment will follow related efforts in Iraq and the United States. In the most recent, U.S. Central Command deployed two Vietnam-era, twin-engine OV-10G Broncos on loan from NASA to Iraq in 2015, flying them in missions against the Islamic State to assess how light-attack planes might help in the air war.
The experiment was described by Navy Capt. Andy Walton in an article last year in Proceedings Magazine, a publication of the U.S. Naval Institute. He detailed one mission over Iraq in an OV-10G in which he and a colleague observed militants for hours as they traveled down the Tigris River in canoes, and then fired on them with laser-guided rockets. (end of excerpt)
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