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By Lara Seligman
Aviation Week

The U.S. Air Force is moving forward with preparations to take two off-the-shelf light attack turboprop aircraft downrange to fight terrorists next year.

Preparations for the combat demonstration, called Combat Dragon III, are notably far along—especially since Air Force leadership has not yet made a final decision on whether to move forward with the exercise. The Air Force has picked a squadron commander, a designation, and a total detachment size of about 70 people, said Air Force Reserve Col. Mike Pietrucha, light attack adviser to Air Combat Command (ACC).

The service has decided to take four total aircraft downrange—two each of the Embraer/Sierra Nevada Corp. A-29 Super Tucano and Textron’s AT-6 Wolverine, Pietrucha said.

“We are preparing as if we’re going,” he said.

Combat Dragon III would be the follow-on to the Air Force’s light attack demonstration that took place this summer at Holloman AFB, New Mexico. The goal of the high-profile experiment was to evaluate four off-the-shelf aircraft for the light-attack counterterrorism mission: top candidates Super Tucano and Wolverine, as well as two “tier two” contenders—Textron’s Scorpion jet and L-3-Air Tractor’s AT-802L Longsword.

The Air Force released the interim report from the light attack experiment internally on Sept. 21, and leadership expects to make a final decision on moving forward with the combat demonstration by year’s end, Pietrucha said.

Industry is on board; the last remaining hurdle is identifying a funding stream, Pietrucha stressed. The Air Force may not have to wait for Congress to reach a budget agreement for fiscal 2018 to find resources for the demo; it could request supplemental funding for fiscal 2017, or potentially use funds from the Overseas Contingency Operations account, he said.

Combat Dragon III likely will be much more costly than the light attack demo, which ran the Air Force less than $6 million paid for out of the service’s experimentation and prototype budget account. Pietrucha estimated the combat experiment would cost more than $100 million.

The concept of a light-attack combat demonstration has roots in the Combat Dragon II program, during which the U.S. Navy deployed a pair of heavily modified OV-10G Broncos to the Middle East to evaluate their surveillance and light-attack capability. Despite a successful deployment, Congress blocked the program.

But the time may now be ripe to pick up where Combat Dragon II left off. The high-end fighters currently helping the venerable A-10 Warthog provide close-air support for troops in the Middle East are worn out from decades of war. A new fleet of about 300 affordable light-attack aircraft designed for the low-threat environment would ease the burden on F-15s, F-16s and other aircraft, allowing them to perform the high-end missions they were designed for, officials argue.
Additionally, a light-attack fleet would provide much-needed seats for pilot training as the Air Force struggles with pilot production, absorption and retention.

Combat Dragon III would be the next step toward a program of record. To man the squadron, the Air Force is pulling airmen from operational squadrons and the air staff, Pietrucha said. The criteria for aircrew are the same as they were for the Holloman demonstration: 1,000 flight hours, time in fighter or attack aircraft, previous or current instructor qualification and combat experience.

At least one partner nation is interested in participating, Pietrucha said.

The combat experiment would take place in U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility, but where in the region would be decided by the commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian. The aircraft would be destroying targets in support of U.S. and coalition forces, just like any other assets in the region, Pietrucha said.

“We expect these aircraft to act like any other fighter attack aircraft that we deploy, a flexible air asset that’s assigned based on what the Combined Forces Air Component commander needs to assign in order to support the operations that are going on,” he said.

The Air Force has not yet decided where the combat demo would take place, but has ruled out several options. For example, the aircraft would not operate out of Al-Udeid air base, Qatar, because the airfield is too far away. They also would not operate in areas where Russian air defenses are present, which rules out certain regions in Syria.

During the combat demonstration the Air Force would for the first time evaluate the effectiveness of the aircraft’s weapons—precision weapons, free-fall munitions and guns, Pietrucha said. Officials also would look at maintenance sustainability, parts consumption and reliability for the operational environment.

“These are the kinds of things you want to know if you are going to work on a theater-wide operation: where can you put these aircraft, how can you sustain them?” Pietrucha said.

The Air Force also will examine options to use rapid acquisition authorities to procure the aircraft faster than in a normal acquisition program, he added. If the Air Force moves forward with a program of record, the service likely will buy the aircraft directly instead of leasing them, because they will be used in combat.