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Observation/Attack-X (OA-X)

With the increased demands for close air support the USAF was experiencing in Iraq and Afghanistan, where air defense threats were relatively low, an examination of low-cost alternatives to existing systems began in the mid-late 2000s. The OA-X concept was also linked to a revival of attention to irregular warfare (previously known within the Department of Defense variously as guerrilla war, insurgency, unconventional war, or low intensity conflict). The Pentagon had predicted in 2006 that irregular war would "likely be the dominant form of conflict [that] our nation faces over the next two decades." Among the initiatives outlined by the Department of Defense to put new emphasis on irregular war, one in particular had a direct effect on the USAF's Air Combat Command: strengthening the ability of US general-purpose or conventional forces to wage it.

The Air Force responded to the Defense Department's initiative in a variety of ways. One of these was to expand the role of genera;-purpose forces in Irregular Warfare by exploring the value of light aircraft. in such conflicts. On 23 December 2008, the US Air Force published an Observation/Attack-X (OA-X) Enabling Concept document. The US Air Force Air Combat Command document framed an operational construct for the potential fielding of a light attack/observation aircraft in support of combatant commanders' requirements for the close air support, armed reconnaissance, non-traditional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, show of force, and peace enforcement missions. The document, which cited earlier studies of low-cost alternatives, posited that replacing one and a half squadrons of fighters already deployed with a theoretical OA-X type could potentially reduce operating costs by $300 million every year, just based on fuel costs. During the same time period the US Navy was also looking into similar requirements for Naval Special Warfare elements, as part of programs codenamed Imminent Fury and Combat Dragon II. Despite joint service interest, these programs were subsequently canceled.

The aircraft would supplement existing strike and reconnaissance platforms, freeing up high-performance fighters and bombers for the major conventional operations they were designed for, reducing wear and tear on them, and thereby extending their service life. The OA-X would be something of a hybrid. Air Combat Command envisaged an uncomplicated, low-cost machine that could be maintained by partner countries, as well as US forces, and operate from unimproved airstrips. At the same time, the aircraft would carry some of the most advanced imaging and communications systems available.

Specifically, the OA-X Enabling Concept envisioned a 2-seat, low-wing monoplane aircraft powered by a single PT-6A turboprop delivering approximately 1,600 shaft horsepower, which would be able fly for 3.5 hours on internal fuel or 5 hours with 2 external fuel tanks. The aircraft would include appropriate radios, an option for data link (including variable message format, situational awareness data link, or Link-16 capabilities), and an electro-optical/infrared sensor that could provide video via a ROVER-compatible datalink.

The OA-X would be able to employ GBU-38/B and GBU-12/B precision-guided munitions and deliver tube-launched weapons and sensors. It would also be capable of accurate, computer-aided delivery of unguided Mk 81 and Mk 82 or similar bombs. AIM-9M Sidewinder missiles, 2.75-inch/70mm rockets (including precision-guided variants), and .50-caliber guns would also be armament options. Qualified aircrews could reload the rockets and guns in the field. The aircraft would have a viable austere-airfield capability that would allow it to operate, combat loaded, from any airfield 3,000 feet long and capable of accommodating a C-130. The hands-on-throttle-and-stick cockpit, would be roughly equivalent to that of any other fourth-generation fighter, including secure radios and datalinks, compatibility with night vision goggles, excellent air-to-ground visibility, and ejection seats capable of functioning at zero airspeed and zero altitude. Chaff and flares would provide self-protection.

Added to the specific OA-X capabilities described in the Enabling Concept, the Department of Defense's Quadrennial Defense Review Report for 2010 gave broader guidance to the armed forces of the United States, with 2 of the 6 key mission areas especially germane to irregular warfare or counterinsurgency operations and an associated light attack aircraft. These were the need to "succeed in counterinsurgency, stability, and counter-terrorism operations," and "build the security capacity of partner states." A key, explicit Quadrennial Defense Review initiative to carry out the aforementioned missions gave direction to the Air Force to field a light attack aircraft in its general-purpose forces as a means of enhancing its ability to partner with a wide range of coalition air forces.

In addition to these organic concepts and requirements, it had also become clear that friendly foreign air forces were also generating requirements for similar low-cost systems that could be operated in low-threat environments. In 2007, the 337th Aeronautical Systems Group at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base had submitted a Capability Request for Information (CRFI) detailing the requirements for a counterinsurgency (COIN) COIN aircraft for the nascent Iraqi Air Force. This resulted in the development of a modified Cessna 208 Caravan capable of firing HELLFIRE missiles. The request was rescinded and work on the aircraft stopped as Iraqi petroleum profits and US concerns about Iran made the acquisition of F-16s by the Iraqis a reality. However, this requirement remained for other countries, such as Afghanistan. In 2009, a Air Combat Command directed Capabilities Based Assessment had noted that the Air Force frequently lacked "right-tech" equipment that partner air forces could afford, operate, and sustain.

Also in 2009, Headquarters, USAF asked Air Combat Command to provide cost estimates for a light attack or reconnaissance aircraft for inclusion in the Fiscal Year 2011 budget. On 1 July 2009, Air Combat Command submitted an estimate of $4.2 billion over Fiscal Years 2011 to 2015 for up to 204 aircraft meeting the characteristics set forth in the OA-X enabling concept. A more detailed submission followed on 31 July 2009 that envisaged up to 4 squadrons (176 primary aircraft authorized, 204 including backup aircraft inventory and attrition reserve).

The pressing operational needs caused the USAF to shelve pursuing the OA-X concept in favor of more limited acquisitions. As a result, the OA-X concept spawned a number of related programs: the Light Attack / Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR), Light Mobility Aircraft (LIMA), and the Light Air Support (LAS) programs. The LAAR and LIMA programs were focused on USAF requirements, while the LAS program was intended a foreign military assistance program. As of 2010, the OA-X concept had not generated a formal requirement and no funding had been approved for a formal program. The FY08, FY09, and FY10 Department of Defense budget requests had included Congressional increases to develop/demonstrate potential Air National Guard (ANG) operational mission capabilities, including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, for the AT-6B, however, as part of the Joint Primary Aircraft Training System (JPATS) program. Complaints were subsequently leveled by members of congress against the Imminent Fury joint capability technology demonstration in 2009 for selecting a foreign type in lieu of the AT-6B, which had been developed for this requirement. Testing of the AT-6B by the Air National Guard Air Force Reserve Command Test Center at Tucson International Airport was conducted in 2010. Test center officials said during the tests that the AT-6 was running at about $600 per hour.

In December 2011, the USAF announced a winner in the LAS competition and awarded a contract to the Sierra Nevada Corporation for purchase of a number of A-29 Super Tucano aircraft. In January 2012, Hawker Beechcraft, which had submitted its AT-6B Texan II aircraft to the LAS competition, filed an official complaint against the contract award. This resulted in a stop-work order on the awarded contract, and a sudden decision in February 2012 to terminate the contract altogether. In February 2012, the USAF also announced that its FY13 budget proposal would end funding for both the Light Attack / Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR) and the Light Mobility Aircraft (LIMA) programs. The USAF had announced as part of its FY13 budget proposal, that it would be moving away from missions related to support ground forces after a decade of major conflict to refocus on service priorities. No mention of the OA-X concept or its future was made.

In April 2012, the US Air Force announced its intention to conduct a new bidding process for the LAS program, which remained purely a foreign military assistance program.

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