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​Air Combat Command boss Gen. Mike Holmes thinks a light attack aircraft fleet will benefit the Air Force. Here, Holmes speaks at the ACC change of command ceremony at JB Langley-Eustis, Va., March 10, 2017. Air Force photo by SSgt. Nick Wilson.

​—John A. Tirpak

Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mike Holmes is a believer in the idea of a light attack aircraft fleet for the Air Force, if the money can be found to buy one.

An OA-X, as the idea is called, would not only save money fighting unsophisticated threats with a cheap-to-operate airplane, it would save wear and tear on more expensive jets, help build the pilot cadre, and offer a way to train jointly with ground forces in ways the Air Force has had to say “no” to in recent years because of the lack of available aircraft.

In a recent interview with Air Force Magazine, Holmes said he doesn’t think a light attack airplane—a turboprop or light jet seem to be the preferred options—will be rendered obsolete anytime soon by a surge in anti-aircraft threats.

“I don’t think that Africa or the fringes of the places where violent extremist organizations operate is going to see an influx of sophisticated, radar-guided SAMS [surface-to-air missiles],” Holmes said. “I think there’ll still be relatively permissive environments for quite a while.”

He agrees with Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein that the fight against violent extremism is “a generational struggle,” and that “we might be halfway into it; probably not.” If the Air Force is going to be called on to provide uncontested close air support, troop overwatch, and light strike “for a long time—and history says we probably are, … should we find a cost-effective way to do that—a low-cost-per-flying-hour way to do that” that is “cheaper than flying F-35s six hours back and forth from somewhere…?”

Doing so would “save the service life of the F-35” and other jets that might be needed “against a peer adversary later,” Holmes explained. The Air Force will need a platform that is “just good enough for that mission, and hold the cost down.”

An OA-X also helps the Air Force’s fighter pilot problem, because the service would like to increase the number of new pilots it brings on, but doesn’t have cockpits for them all to go to. “We would use [the light attack airplane] as a place to season young fighter pilots quickly,” Holmes said, allowing them to rapidly build up hours and “and learn the lessons” of a junior flight leader, taking a flight into and out of the combat zone, through weather, handling emergency procedures, and “the basic flight leadership issues that you have to master at a really cheap cost.”

Making more cockpits available allows USAF to bring in more pilots, “so you’ll have more experienced pilots six years from now, and you’ll have a larger base to draw from 10 years from now, when they’re making their decision about leaving the Air Force,” said Holmes.

During home-station time, light attack pilots could support training of Tactical Air Control Parties “and Army maneuver unit training,” Holmes said. Higher-end aircraft could still do that training to maintain everyone’s proficiency at those tasks, but there would be aircraft available “to support Green Flag East and Green Flag West in the places where we train alongside the Army … so we could meet more of their requirement with the limited force that we have.”

The OA-X , then, “offers us a lot of options, but it’s going to depend on my budget, as everything does,” the ACC chief said. “It will depend on the resources that we’re given.”

The Air Force began sending invites to companies on May 5 to participate in this summer’s OA-X Light Attack Aircraft experiments, a service spokesman confirmed Tuesday.

The Air Force has declined to name the companies invited, but said the companies are welcome to “self-identify.” So far, Textron, which will offer the Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine and Textron AirLand Scorpion, is the only one to do so.