WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – On March 8, 2017, Gen. David L. Goldfein, Air Force chief of staff, issued a memorandum stating that the Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base would lead a campaign directed at the Air Force’s light attack capabilities.
Just five months later, the SDPE office, along with representatives from Air Combat Command, Air Force Materiel Command, Air Force Special Operations Command and Air Education and Training Command are on the ground and in the skies over Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, conducting a light attack experiment.
A distinguished visitor and media day was held about two weeks into the experiment on Aug. 9 at Holloman, with the event providing an opportunity for an up-close look at the four commercial off-the-shelf planes that are participating in the experiment, including: Air Tractor and L3’s AT-802L Longsword; Sierra Nevada Corp. and Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano; and the Scorpion jet and AT-6 Wolverine, both from Textron.
Dr. Heather A. Wilson, Secretary of the Air Force, welcomed those in attendance at the DV/Media Day and explained the reason for the experiment.
“Our adversaries are modernizing faster than we are, and it’s up to the United States Air Force to drive innovation so that they are surprised by just how powerful we are, how ready we are, for any fight, anytime, anywhere – and that means we have to think about things in new ways and identify new capabilities faster than we’ve done in the past,” she said.
“This drive to innovation to find rapid and affordable solutions to the problems that we face on the battlefield is really about two things: It’s about what we’re looking at, and it’s about how we’re developing those capabilities. Innovation is in the DNA of the United States Air Force.”
Once a decision was made about what companies would participate in the experiment, the aircrew training piece of the experiment was addressed, said Dr. Ravi Penmetsa, AF SDPE light attack experiment lead.
Altogether, the team includes around 200 or more people from all four major commands.
“Our first task was to determine where the experiment would be conducted and what test range would be used,” Penmetsa said. “Holloman AFB provided optimal conditions with plenty of space available and leadership there was very supportive of the mission.”
Midway through the experiment, seamless teamwork and strong leadership support have ensured success for the team, according to Penmetsa.
“Maj. Gen. David Harris, Air Force Test Center commander, told us we have the Center’s full support and to go ahead and put an experimentation plan together, so we got our experts together and did just that.”
The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center provided the contracting expertise needed to conduct the experiment, reaching out to industry and issuing Invitations to Participate, responding to requests for information, and executing Other Transaction Authority, or OTA agreements, with each of the participating contractors.
“AETC, ACC, and AFSOC came together to help us put a team together to finalize what the training should be for operational crews and for test aircrews. All the MAJCOM Air Force Instructions were consulted and ACC/A3 was designated the authority to release a training plan for the experiment aircrews,” he said.
While the training plan was being developed, the AFLCMC Airworthiness Directorate conducted an engineering review for the participating aircraft.
“The team came up with a risk-based process they believed was the best way to assess safety and airworthiness risks for these platforms. They talked to the contractors and had them deliver a lot of information to assess risk. Once this information was captured, they made decisions about which envelopes are approved for each of these platforms,” Penmetsa said.
Once contracting officials signed the agreements, experiment execution by the 704th Test Group and 586th Flight Test Squadron at Holloman was able to begin.
“The number of sorties the contractors have been executing for us is much higher than the typical operational tempo we would be able to achieve using 4th generation platforms with one tail. They’re executing two to three sorties a day for each tail for the last five weeks,” said Penmetsa.
“On the AETC side, you have all the training syllabus they supported us with. ACC provided us with aircrew and ground Joint Terminal Attack Controllers. AFSOC provided one pilot and one weapons system officer. They’re also helping us set up an unimproved surface site at Cannon AFB. Toward the end of the experiment, we’ll ask these planes to go land on that unimproved surface as another experiment data point,” Penmetsa said.
“All the people here working together on this project are extremely passionate people. For us to be able to pull this off so fast, everyone that we have on the team is doing above and beyond what they’re expected to do,” he said.
The pace of activities supporting the experiment did provide challenges to the experiment team.
“The schedule was a tough challenge to make sure everything happened at the right time and place – to make sure all these teams executed their piece at the right time. There were times when we felt pretty overwhelmed, but at the end of the day, everything came together pretty smoothly,” Penmetsa said.
A positive aspect of the experiment, according to Penmetsa, has been the type of contracting mechanism being used – an Other Transactional Authority. An OTA is a legally binding instrument more like a commercial-sector contract between the government and industry. OTAs encourage collaboration and promote innovation from non-traditional defense contractors as well as traditional industry partners, thereby allowing the assessment of commercial off-the-shelf light attack aircraft.
“The flexibility of the OTA is awesome for an experiment like this. It’s a simple, 10-page agreement that’s very flexible and gives you an opportunity to talk to the contractors using language they’re comfortable with,” Penmetsa said.
“In the beginning, Mr. Jack Blackhurst, Air Force SDPE director, said, ‘set up a process, stick to it, and don’t deviate.’ This has been outstanding guidance along the way.”
According to Penmetsa, all four contractors have kept up with the pace.
“Over the past five months we have placed a huge burden on industry to deliver data in support of initial selection process, training, airworthiness assessment, manufacturing readiness assessment and experiment execution. Industry teams supported the government team and kept pace with experiment schedule. Even though there are no guarantees for a light attack program at the end of this experiment, industry came to the table because of the valuable feedback they are receiving from all the government teams.”
“This experiment has helped us gather valuable information we would not have gotten from a typical proposal. The data we are collecting is orders of magnitude better. When we’re done, we should know exactly where industry stands, if we are ready for any step forward, whatever that might be – a combat demonstration or production,” said Penmetsa.
“This is not a competition, not a fly-off of any sort, and there is no acquisition program of record,” said Lt. Col. Robert Odom, 704th Test Group deputy commander.
“Our objective is to qualitatively evaluate the military utility of light attack platform industry concepts and to do that we’re evaluating the platforms against a set of operational measures of effectiveness. There are eight supporting objectives including: demonstrate system ability to find, fix, track and target; demonstrate data link interoperability, demonstrate weapons delivery and accuracy; demonstrate flight manual predictions and that they are accurate to aircraft performance; demonstrate the flying qualities and handling qualities; demonstrate systems functionality; observe aircraft suitability and determine the platform visual and aeroacoustics signatures.”
Upon conclusion of the experiment, four separate reports, one report per participant aircraft, will include the assessments of these measures of effectiveness and measures of performance.
“I’m absolutely impressed with the number of AFMC Centers that came together to make this happen and I’m confident that when we see the results of this experiment, the rigor and discipline will stand up to scrutiny,” said Col. Anthony Thomas, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center Advisor to SDPE.