Close air support has been a key part of American warfighting for the last 50 years.
In Vietnam, close air support was pivotal in the survival and effectiveness of conventional and special operations units. During the invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, close air support for CIA and special operations teams and their Afghan partner forces enabled the quick toppling of the Taliban in the region. More recently, American commandos and Kurdish fighters relied on airpower and close air support to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria.
This union of air power and commandos has proven to be a devastatingly effective combination.
To ensure this marriage of capabilities remains as the U.S. pivots away from combat operations in the Middle East and toward great power competition in the Pacific, the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is looking to create its own fleet of dedicated close air support aircraft under the Armed Overwatch program.
Armed Overwatch: Warheads on Foreheads
With the Armed Overwatch Program, SOCOM aims to provide special operations units with a deployable, affordable, and sustainable manned aircraft that would be able to conduct Close Air Support (CAS), Armed Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (Armed ISR), Strike Coordination & Reconnaissance (SCAR), and Forward Air Control (FAC) missions.
Pentagon defines CAS as air action by fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft against enemy targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces and requires detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces.
Essentially, SOCOM is looking for an aircraft that can support troops on the ground but also collect intelligence to inform the decisions of commanders on the ground and in the rear. Although there are manned and unmanned aircraft in the U.S. inventory that can do those things separately, SOCOM is looking for a dedicated aircraft that would bring all those skill sets under one cockpit.
Platforms like the MQ-9 Reaper, currently the most requested aircraft among combatant commanders, exist in too few numbers to have a sizeable presence in multiple theaters at once, and even fast-moving fixed-wing assets like fighter jets are often too far away to make a difference in a remote firefight.
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Equally important, SOCOM is looking for its own organic assets that it can manage and deploy where it sees fit without having to rely on its conventional colleagues.
Five aircraft have made it to this stage of the competition. They are:
- Bronco II, by Leidos Inc
- MC-208 Guardian, by MAG Aerospace
- AT-6E Wolverine, by Textron Aviation Defense
- AT-802U Sky Warden, by L-3 Communications Integrated System
- MC-145B Wily Coyote, by Sierra Nevada Corporation
Although it didn’t make the final five, the A-29 Super Tucano, which is in service with the Afghan Air Force and has proven itself to be a valuable close air support platform, has a lot of fans in the U.S. special operations community because of its slow speeds and significant loiter time.
However, the Air Force is currently assessing the A-29 Super Tucano for the Airborne Extensible Relay Over-Horizon Network program that seeks to create a data and intelligence sharing network for regional partners. The aircraft was also a contestant in the controversial Attack Aircraft/Continue Light Attack Experiment, a program very similar to SOCOM’s Armed Overwatch Program, which has been canceled—at least for now—that significantly hamstrung SOCOM’s efforts for an organic close air support aircraft.
The AC-130 gunship is also a favorite of the special operations community, but, as in the case of the A-29, it’s unaffected by the Armed Overwatch Program.
So, what do special operators think about the aircraft on which they might end up having to rely for their survival downrange?
The View from Below
To get as a holistic understanding of the issue as possible, Sandboxx News spoke with commandos and support troops from across the U.S. special operations community, including current and former Navy SEALs, Green Berets, Air Force Combat Controllers, and Delta Force operators. For personal security reasons and potential professional ramifications, the vast majority asked not to be named.
“When the shit hits the fan, what am I looking for in an aircraft? Speed, firepower, and loiter time,” a senior non-commissioned, JTAC-qualified active duty Navy SEAL from an East Coast team with several platoons under his belt told Sandboxx News.
“I need that aircraft to respond quickly and be on target as soon as possible. What’s the point of having the best or biggest guns if the ground force is wiped out by the time you get there? It’s also about munitions. Does the aircraft have enough firepower to effectively deal with a threat or is he going to go Winchester [run out of amunnition] after two or three passes? The SOCOM Armed Overwatch fleet is going to be small and probably spread out with all the commitments across the world. So every plane has to count. Finally, how long can he stay? This ties to the previous consideration. I need an aircraft that can stay for a long time,” the SEAL added.
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“As an experienced GFC [ground force commander], the A-10 was hands down my favorite plane to have on call for CAS [close air support]. It’s not only that it was very effective when it dropped ordnance, it was also a great psychological weapon as the bad guys would shit themselves when they heard or saw it,” a former Army Special Forces officer told Sandboxx News.
“I would want something similar for this [Armed Overwatch] program. An aircraft that would give the same amount of confidence to the guys on the ground, but that would also spread the same amount of fear among the enemy. I’m no Air Force guy nor a JTAC [Joint Terminal Attack Controller], so I can’t talk about the different specifications and that kind of stuff. But as a guy whose team was literally saved by an A-10, I would want something similar—if not the same,” the former Green Beret added.
Although the tier 1 units, Delta Force and SEAL Team 6, of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), are a different case, they might end up having to rely on the Armed Overwatch program for close air support in the future.
“When you get to the SMU [special missions unit] level, things are a little different. We almost always have priority on assets, plus our missions are shorter, with mostly being DAs [Direct Action],” a former Delta Force operator told Sandboxx News.
“You won’t find us on the ground for three-four days like some other units. We usually go out and come back in a single cycle of darkness. Plus we work very closely with the 160th [160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment]. So the Armed Overwatch program won’t affect us too much. I’ve had fast movers, AC-130s, A-10s, B-52s, and Apaches support me, and I always appreciated an aircraft that had a lot of ordnance to shoot but could also stay for a while. Those two things would be what I’d look for,” the former Delta Force operator added.
“During overnight missions, I found the fixed-wing fast movers harder to utilize because they moved on-and-off station so quickly and we’d have a 36-hour timeframe to fill with air support,” a former Air Force Combat Controller told Sandboxx News.
“However, in a TIC [troops in contact], getting those pushed to you wasn’t bad at all. [MQ-9] Predators don’t have as formidable an arsenal, but they were helpful for tracking what was going on in a target area over the course of like half-a-day, which was nice on longer patrols. The other thing is, a lot of the air support we required was actually ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] aircraft that could do passes over a target prior to an operation, using their sensors to soak an area, gather intel, understand the pattern of life and even determine whether people had been digging on the roadways approaching the objective to lay IEDs. Things like that make a huge difference,” the former Combat Controller added.
“Each [platform] are so good at a number of things. F-16s can get on station fast as fuck, can help you spot targets, and could quickly drop some bombs or even just give you a show of force over some Taliban that were getting antsy,” Zach Asmus, a former Air Force Combat Controller told Sandboxx News.
“F-15s carry a ton of ordnance and if I were in an extended fight against a large number of enemy, they’d be perfect. You have to remember, Afghanistan is different than Iraq, which is different than Somalia, etc. What worked for me in large swaths of Central and Southern Afghanistan won’t translate 1:1 to urban areas or places with anti-aircraft defenses,” Asmus, who works at Okta, co-leading the veteran employee resource group, and also helps in the relocation of Afghan interpreters and their families who worked with U.S. and coalition forces.
“I want a CAS platform that can recognize what’s going on and be thinking a few steps ahead…[Also] they need to have the right weapons. Usually, this means an array of weapons. For example, in any one firefight, I might need some red phosphorous to mark targets, a couple of different sized bombs, and of course some guns for more precision,” Asmus added.
“Loiter time is also big. Sensors also don’t get talked about enough but the ability to have an aircraft with advanced sensors that can alert you of anything nefarious well before it gets to you is priceless,” Asmus said.
But besides the technical and capability parameters, it’s important to leave service politics out when making the decision.
“I do know there have been stupid games being played that always seem to leave our operators hung out to dry. Whatever CAS evolves into, it needs to leave the politics out of it,” Asmus said.
“How many times have they tried to cancel the A-10? Do you know how many Americans wouldn’t be here today without the A-10? CAS programs of the future need to have a direct line to the JTAC operators for any and all sign-off. Get a salty E7 in there with a few deployments to tell you what’s gonna work before you go blow billions of dollars on it.”
The consensus from below for the Armed Overwatch program seems to be an aircraft that has a diverse arsenal, good loiter time, and the necessary sensors to provide critical, live intelligence to the troops on the ground so they can make the best possible decisions. A tall order, for sure, but SOCOM should get this one right as lives would depend on its decision.