I know what you are thinking as you read the title of this article: “Oh boy, a former ground and sea-based naval commando is about to write about Air Force Special Operations programs.” Go ahead and key up a big eye roll, if you must. However, since this program exists to support ground-based U.S. Special Operations Forces (USSOF), I am going to press on, all derision be damned!
So, before digging into the fact that unmanned drones are going to be considered for the Armed Overwatch Program, we need to first explain exactly what the Armed Overwatch Program is. Launched by U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) in 2020, the program is an effort to field 75 fixed-wing aircraft (i.e., not helicopters) to perform close air support (CAS) for USSOF ground forces; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); and precision strike missions.
USSOCOM is the parent combatant command for AFSOC (the Air Force contingent of Special Operations Forces), and all USSOF in the U.S. military. All that means is, when AFSOC assets are being employed on the battlefield, it’s generally USSOCOM that will be directing them. That is not accurate 100 percent of the time, but it is good enough for the purposes of clarification here.
ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) is just what it sounds like — essentially, overhead intelligence collection — and these proposed Armed Overwatch aircraft would perform the ISR mission in airspace over austere locations (battlefields, deserts, large swathes of jungle, etc), in support of USSOF.
CAS (Close Air Support) is when an aircraft provides fire support (guns, bombs, and/or missiles) to assist ground forces engaged with the enemy. The aircraft shoots at the bad guys on the ground who are shooting at the good guys on the ground.
Finally, precision strike missions are when an aircraft launches a missile at a predetermined target, such as a military command structure, or a high-value target (HVT) in a global terrorist organization. Those strikes can be guided by personnel on the ground using lasers, infrared beams, GPS, visual reckoning (although, how precise is that, really?), or they can even be guided by the missiles themselves in some of the more advanced programs.
In other words, the Armed Overwatch Program is USSOCOM’s effort to field an aircraft that can support USSOF ground troops, the tactical imperative of battle-space intelligence superiority, and a lethal strike capability similar to the CIA’s early post-9/11-era Predator UAV program. Furthermore, naturally, AFSOC is the lead element within USSOCOM of developing the program.
So, fast forward to the present day, in March of 2021. The program is on track to put on a demonstration of competing platforms being considered for the Armed Overwatch mission, and according to Lt. General James “Jim” Slife, the commander of AFSOC, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are in-fact being considered as contenders for the program. As reported in Air Force Magazine, Slife stated that he does not care which platform wins out, he just wants to “get the mission done.”
Specifically, Slife was referring to the MQ-9 Reaper UAV when making those comments. The Reaper is a successor to the CIA’s Predator, though larger (to carry more armaments) and with a greater range and speed, among other differences. While larger than the original Predator, it is smaller than a fixed-wing manned aircraft.
According to the Air Force Magazine article, the manned vs. unmanned aircraft question is one that has yet to be answered for the Armed Overwatch Program. While the article does not go into the specific arguments for each, they can generally be boiled down to matters of cost (in personnel, fuel, and equipment), human limitations, and human-less limitations.
It is generally more cost-effective in the long run to buy and operate unmanned aircraft for these types of operations. They do not require pilots (or their salaries and benefits), use less fuel, and are cheaper to manufacture. Humans also need sleep, food, toilet breaks, and to be rescued when their aircraft is shot down. This is all part of what we call here the “human limitations.” We humans also require a fortified place to land and park our aircraft (to be fair, this is also required for the UAVs, but the ranges are different, such that UAVs can make it back closer to “home” more easily than the manned aircraft).
As far as the UAV (human-less) limitations, the big one is the human brain, its visual sensors (eyes), and other senses. U.S. military pilots will always tell you that there is a key role for human pilots in air warfare, and that there always will be, despite the advent and forward march of UAVs over the last 20 years. As the brother-in-law of a Navy F/A-18 pilot, I can only assume that that is true, and take the pilots’ word for it. However, one must also note that human brains do make mistakes in the cockpit, sometimes tragically resulting in friendly fire incidents and civilian deaths. And to be fair, again, those same mistakes have been made with UAVs, which are also controlled (remotely) by human brains.
In any case, exactly which platform will win out and become USSOCOM’s Armed Overwatch aircraft remains to be seen. I, for one, though, would not discount too heavily the Reaper’s chances. It, or some new/modified version of it, has a good shot at being the overwatch platform for future ground-based USSOF missions.