The Air Force Wants a New Lightweight Fighter to Do What the F-35 Can’t

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The U.S. Air Force will request funding to test a number of airplanes for a new low-cost fighter concept. The goal is to field a fleet of small, lightweight airplanes capable of flying low and slow against enemies without advanced air defenses, providing support to ground forces fighting low-tech opponents such as the Taliban and the Islamic State.

The service is requesting $8 million to fund the tests, which it hopes will identify suitable candidates for OA-X, or Observation, Attack-Experimental aircraft. OA-X aircraft would be small, typically single-seat aircraft capable of flying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions or ground attacks. The plane should be capable of operating from austere environments and airfields. A key requirement is that the aircraft be inexpensive to fly on a per-hour basis.

The fact that the Air Force needs the OA-X concept is an acknowledgment that planes such as the F-15E Strike Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter fly too high and fast for pilots to effectively grasp what’s going on on the battlefield below. ( There’s always the rugged A-10, but some in the Air Force have been wanting to retire the old Warthog for years.) These modern planes also require a large logistical footprint and basing infrastructure to operate. They are also very expensive to fly, with the Joint Strike Fighter costing $42,200 an hour in the air.

Fortunately for the Air Force, there are a number of existing designs that could fill the requirement, making designing a plane from the ground up unnecessary. Bell Textron’s Scorpion jet is one possible contender. It’s an airplane that was funded in-house but which has failed to attract any buyers. Scorpion was designed to be affordable and costs just $3,000 an hour to operate. Other possibilities include the Lockheed Martin/Korean Aerospace Industries FA-50 light fighter, a derivative of the T-50 jet being offered for the Air Force’s next-generation jet trainer program, and the M-346F, a derivative of the Alenia Aeromacchi M-346 also being offered as a trainer.

OA-X may not be a jet, though. In Vietnam, the job of battlefield observation and light attack was accomplished by planes such as the propeller-driven OV-10 Bronco, two of which were borrowed in 2013 from NASA by Special Operations Command and outfitted with night vision cameras and laser-guided rockets. The program, known as Combat Dragon II, sent the two aircraft to the Middle East in 2015, where they flew 120 combat missions. While the OV-10 is out of production other turboprop aircraft that could fill the role include the Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine, Brazilian A-29 Super Tucano, and the IOMAX Archangel.

Source: Defense News