The Air Force could soon begin testing light attack aircraft to see if they're a viable option for close-air support.

The work is being led by a new office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, that was stood up to experiment with new technologies and strategies and to help keep the service on track with its 30-year plan.


The Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office was created after the force released its Strategic Master Plan to guide the service in organizing, training and equipping airmen. 

The office will conduct experiments that include live exercises and simulation, and it will help senior Air Force leaders decide which technologies to fund.

One of the first experiments the office is taking on is to test light attack planes.

"We're bringing in vendors that have light attack airplanes and flying them against a series of test objectives," said Jack Blackhurst, director of the office. 

The experiment is expected to run for about 135 days, and will help the service determine if light attack planes are a viable, low-cost option to supplement the A-10 Warthog. The Air Force has pushed back the retirement of the A-10s until at least 2022 following stiff opposition from Congress.

Lt. Gen. James M. "Mike" Holmes, the service's deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, has floated a number of close-air support options to Air Force leaders, including the flight demonstration of inexpensive, off-the-shelf tactical airplanes. Among the aircraft mentioned are turbo-propeller aircraft like Embraer's  A-29 Super Tucano and the Beechcraft's AT-6 Wolverine, Textron AirLand's Scorpion jet or a variant of the Alenia Aermacchi M-346. 

Holmes has stressed that a new light attack craft would supplement, not replace the A-10 Warthog fleet. But it would give combatant commanders a low-cost option for battling violent extremist groups in light of the high operations and maintenance costs associated with the A-10 and various fighter jets currently doing that job. 

The service has yet to make a decision on whether to procure a replacement aircraft for4 the Warthog, which would give commanders the ability to conduct CAS against more dangerous adversaries in medium-threat environments. 

While the office of Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office is unable to release details of its experiments because much of its work is classified, Blackhurst said the office was created when Air Force leaders realized they needed a tighter focus on strategic development.

"What are the courses of action the Air Force could take to retain air superiority over the next 30 years?" he said.

The Air Force included $400 million in its fiscal 2017 budget request to Congress to fund the office for five years, Blackhurst said.

"We'll be going out and testing new concepts that will make the Air Force a little more agile and adaptive," he said. "We want to be as adaptable as the adversary."

The office will provide Air Force leaders with feedback from the experiments so they can decide which technologies to fund and ultimately field across the service. The 15-person office is part of the Ohio base's Air Force Research Laboratory.

"It's designed to be lean," said Blackhurst, a former director of the lab.

Blackhurst said the office has already identified two experiments, including the light attack plane tests, it wants to conduct once leadership gives approval.

Although the office is based at Wright-Patterson, Blackhurst said the experiments will be conducted wherever they need to be done.

"Years ago, the Air Force used to do a lot more experimentation," he said.

Then starting around the 1990s, he said, the Air Force began providing requirements for contractors so they could build a product without as much experimentation.

"We've gone back to our roots by reinvigorating this process," he said. "The Air Force is saying now if you want to be agile and test new concepts before you bend medal, you need to see if concepts actually work."



Charlsy Panzino covers the Guard and Reserve, training, technology, operations and features for Army Times and Air Force Times. Email her at cpanzino@militarytimes.com

Reporter Valerie Insinna contributed to this report.