The Wichita-built AT-6 Wolverine is one of two planes the Air Force will evaluate in an experiment that could lead to a big order.
Textron Aviation Defense will field its Beechcraft AT-6 for a second Air Force test of light-attack aircraft beginning in May.
Such an order, which a Textron Aviation official and defense analysts said could mean between 100 and 300 Beechcraft airplanes, would give a much-needed boost to the T-6 production line at Textron Aviation East Campus that rolled out only 13 airplanes in 2017, a little more than one a month. The AT-6 is an attack version of the T-6 military trainer.
That output compares with a production line that five years ago delivered 34 airplanes, according to data from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.
More airplanes on that line presumably could also mean more jobs at Textron Aviation.
But then again, the experiment the Air Force calls OA-X could simply be just that, an experiment that doesn't lead to an order for new planes, analysts said.
"I would say there's definitely an interest in the service for the concept," said Ray Jaworowski, senior analyst at Forecast International, "but I wouldn't say they're fully committed to going ahead with a purchase at this point."
Hundreds of aircraft?
About two years ago a newly created Air Force office began looking into a cheaper, light-attack aircraft already in production that could augment the service's aging fleet of A-10 Warthogs, which provide close air support to troops on the ground.
That led to the the first OA-X experiment, a two-month-long evaluation of airplanes the Air Force deemed potential "off-the-shelf" light-attack aircraft that could also perform ISR — intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — missions. The AT-6 was part of the invitation-only experiment, as was Textron's Scorpion jet and the A-29 Super Tucano.
The experiment included basic aircraft handling, tactical and aerobatic maneuvers, flying with use of night-vision goggles and related equipment, and use of weapons.
From that experiment, the Air Force invited back to OA-X Phase II just two planes: the AT-6 and the A-29, an aircraft fielded by U.S.-based Sierra Nevada Corp. and manufactured at Embraer Defense & Security's Jacksonville, Fla., plant.
It's not the first time the Wichita-built AT-6 and the A-29 have gone head to head.
Sierra Nevada and Beechcraft were locked in a three-year battle over an Air Force contract for 20 planes for use by the Afghanistan military. That contract was worth more than $427 million and potentially $1 billion for follow-up orders. Sierra Nevada ultimately prevailed in the contract dispute when the Government Accountability Office ruled in its favor in 2013. Beechcraft, which was later acquired by Textron, protested the contract award on the basis that the A-29 was more expensive and a less capable, foreign-manufactured airplane than the AT-6.
Michael Rambo, Textron Aviation Defense's project lead for the AT-6 and former Air Force pilot, said the experiment that begins next month is expected to last three months. It will be conducted at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, where the first OA-X experiment was conducted.
The Air Force said in a news release that the experiment's second phase will include logistics and maintenance requirements, weapons and sensor issues, and networking and aircraft interoperability with allied forces.
"Rather than do a combat demonstration, we have decided to work closely with industry to experiment with maintenance, data networking and sensors with the two most promising light attack aircraft — the AT-6 Wolverine and the A-29 Super Tucano," said Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson in the release. "This will let us gather the data needed for a rapid procurement."
Rambo said he's "optimistic that we're going to perform very well" in the upcoming experiment.
How soon an acquisition decision could come isn't certain. According to published reports, the Air Force has put a more than $2 billion line item in its 2020 budget for light-attack aircraft.
Rambo said if the Air Force decides to buy light-attack airplanes, he thinks a decision could come "right after the light-attack experiment or sometime in the next year or so."
How many airplanes would be ordered by the Air Force also isn't clear.
Analysts said the numbers they've heard are between 250 and 350 planes. Rambo said it "would be premature to assess the number the Air Force is looking at." But an Air Force order along with sales to other U.S. military branches as well as foreign allies could number as many as 300, he said.
"Obviously our optimism would be in the hundreds of aircraft," Rambo said.
And if the Air Force selected the AT-6, he said, Textron Aviation Defense would build the planes on the T-6 production line. Its work would also include related activities such as the manufacture of spare parts.
"All of those things would require a substantial amount of Wichitans to contribute to that effort," Rambo said.
Even with a line item in a future budget, analysts said it's not a given the Air Force will buy any light-attack airplanes.
The Air Force is also careful in the words it uses about an acquisition of light-attack airplanes.
"The Air Force expects to have the information it needs to potentially buy light attack aircraft in a future competition," it said in the news release announcing the second-phase experiment.
Jaworowski said there are two camps in the Air Force and at the Pentagon when it comes to light-attack aircraft: those who think adding them to the fleet is a good thing and those who don't.
"We . . . still seem to hear debate whether such an aircraft is needed in the force structure," he said.
Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for the Teal Group, said armed turboprop airplanes have a limited role in a battle, especially when the enemy has air-to-air or ground-to-air missiles. Their effectiveness, he said, is limited to battles with the Taliban and the Islamic State group.
"It just doesn't fit and frankly, planes like these when used in actual combat, they tend to suffer really terrible casualties," Aboulafia said.
He said turboprops lack the speed, agility, ability to gain altitude and armor to be effective "in a full-up war or a war against any kind of well-armed power."
Jaworowski, too, is skeptical of a light-attack aircraft purchase by the Air Force. But he acknowledges he could be wrong.
"It may go ahead," Jaworowski said. "It's too soon to tell at this point."