For those advocating the U.S. buy a light attack aircraft to fight terrorists in the Middle East, news that the U.S. Air Force has decided to skip a combat trial of the two top contenders and move straight into developing an acquisition strategy seems like a good sign.

But a decision to actually put dollars toward procuring a light attack fleet is far from certain, and the Air Force does not have a good track record of following through on this particular issue. 

The Air Force last summer brought four off-the-shelf aircraft – Sierra Nevada/Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano, Textron’s AT-6, Textron's Scorpion jet and L3-Air Tractor's AT-802T Longsword – out to Holloman AFB, New Mexico, for a series of experiments designed to test their suitability for low-end combat. Since then, Air Force Leaders have repeatedly said that, if the experiment was deemed successful, the next step would be taking the top contenders downrange for a combat demonstration.

The service is now claiming that decision-makers have enough information to move forward with a potential light attack program without conducting a combat trial. What changed between then and now? Surely the Air Force would want to do a trial run in a realistic combat environment at some point before actually buying an off-the-shelf aircraft for the critical mission of protecting soldiers on the ground.

A look at the Air Force’s history when it comes to the light attack mission could shed some light on the current debate.  

The “OA-X” concept dates back to 2007, as the surge in Iraq reached its peak and demands on air power there were at an all-time high. The idea was to develop a low-cost alternative to striking terrorists, armed with much cheaper and less sophisticated weapons, with high-end fighters designed for near-peer threats. 

Inspired by the Colombian air force’s modern fleet of turboprop light-attack aircraft— including Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano, the older EMB-312 Tucano, Cessna’s Vietnam-era A-37 Dragonfly modernized with a partial glass cockpit, and the Douglas AC-47 gunship— a small group of airmen began studying a more cost-effective solution. They looked in particular at the Douglas A-1 Skyraider, a Korean War-vintage aircraft that had been retired by the U.S. Navy, and the North American Rockwell OV-10 Bronco, an observation aircraft that was repurposed as a light-attack bird.

Out of this study came the OA-X Enabling Concept, officially approved by Air Combat Command in 2008, which laid out the requirements of an affordable light-attack and observation aircraft. The guidelines then were almost exactly the same as they are today: a commercial-off-the-shelf aircraft with a turboprop powerplant—easier to maintain and more fuel-efficient than a jet engine, thus much cheaper to operate—and big guns, along with modern precision munitions, sensors and communications suites. 

This all sounded good, but it didn’t stick. The original OA-X fell victim to the funding challenges of 2008. A similar effort, the “Light Attack and Armed Reconnaissance” program, was canceled in fiscal 2012.

What did see success was the “Light Air Support” effort to buy a small fleet of light-attack aircraft to train the Afghan air force. Today, NATO’s Train Advise, Assist Command-Air effort is teaching the Afghans to fly the Super Tucano. 

In light of this history, the Air Force’s emphasis throughout this iteration of the light attack effort on international participation is noteworthy.

Five international partners observed the first phase of the Holloman experiment, including Canada, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Middle Eastern nations. The Air Force is planning to invite additional international partners to observe this second phase of experimentation, according to spokeswoman Capt. Emily Grabowski. 

This approach seems to be laying the groundwork for an international light attack buy - possibly in place of a U.S. one. 

So although Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson pointedly noted that a second experiment on the U.S., “will let us gather the data needed for a rapid procurement,” I remain skeptical.