The Air Force has ended the flying portion of an experiment to test the merits of light-attack aircraft following the crash of an A-29 Super Tucano in New Mexico that killed a Navy test pilot, officials announced Tuesday.
However, the service has not canceled the program completely, Lt. Gen. Arnie Bunch, the Air Force’s top general for acquisition, told reporters at the Pentagon. It will continue collecting data about the A-29 and the AT-6B Wolverine — turbo-prop, light-attack aircraft that it has been testing — as officials determine whether the service should add one of those models to its inventory.
“Right now we have not made that decision,” Bunch said. “Right now all the indications are that [the planes are] performing as we expected the platforms to perform. It’s a tragedy. And we’re heartbroken by it, but we have not made a commitment that we will not go forward with” the light attack program.
The Air Force is considering purchasing hundreds of light-attack planes as it looks for a cheaper, less-sophisticated alternative to using its advanced fourth- and fifth-generation fighter jets for bombing missions in areas where major air defenses do not exist, such as Afghanistan. It would allow the service to focus its fighter pilots on preparing for a potential war with a near-peer adversary, such as China, Russia or North Korea, Bunch said.
If senior Air Force officials choose to purchase the light-attack aircraft, the service intends to seek bids by December, Bunch said.
The Air Force had already spent months testing Textron Aviation’s AT-6B Wolverine and the A-29 Super Tucano, a joint product of the Sierra Nevada Corporation and Embraer Defense & Security, before the June 22 crash at Red Rio Bombing Range that killed Navy Lt. Christopher Carey Short.
The Air Force completed the first of two planned flying phases last year at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. That phase featured four aircraft and saw test pilots from the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps test the planes in hundreds of hours of flying.
In February, the Air Force announced it had narrowed the field to the A-29, the plane that the Afghan Air Force flies in combat missions, and the AT-6B, a combat-outfitted version of the T-6 Texan that the U.S. military already uses to train student pilots.
The Air Force began the second phase of the flying experiment May 7 at Holloman in what was planned to be three months of flying to determine maintenance and sustainment requirements of the aircraft while also conducting additional scrutiny of their combat capabilities, Bunch said.
While the crash that killed Short led to the cancelation of the flying portion of the second phase of the light-attack experiment, Bunch said the Air Force was still considering both models of aircraft that it was testing. He said the investigation had not turned up any issues about the A-29 that would indicate the United States or its Afghan partners should cease flying it in training or combat.
“I’m not aware of anything that we’ve changed right now,” the general said.
Bunch declined to provide any additional details about the crash investigation, saying the initial probe would likely last about a month and follow-up studies would take additional time.
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