This might be the year when the first special operations armed overwatch aircraft actually fly.
During a virtual event at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, Lieutenant General James Slife, the commander of the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), stated that the long-awaited Armed Overwatch Program will probably see its first demonstration flights this year.
The Armed Overwatch Program seeks to replace the U-28A “Draco” aircraft, which specializes in airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) but also does so with a twist. The new aircraft would be able to more than just provide special operations troops with key intelligence. Indeed, the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) wants an aircraft that in addition to the ISR capability, it will be able to provide close air support and precision strike options.
Last year, SOCOM released a solicitation for an Armed Overwatch program that would “provide Special Operations Forces (SOF) deployable and sustainable manned aircraft systems fulfilling Close Air Support (CAS), Precision Strike, and SOF Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance (ISR) in austere and permissive environments.”
Congress is pushing back on the Armed Overwatch Program—it prohibited SOCOM from purchasing the first aircraft in Fiscal Year 2021—mainly because of a different but similar program that the Air Force has been pursuing. With the Light Attack Aircraft program (now called the Continued Light Attack Experiment), the Air Force has been looking for an aircraft that would mainly focus on Close Air Support, freeing up precious advanced fighter jets, such as the F-22 or the F-35, for air superiority and air combat missions. However, the Light Aircraft Program has been plagued by delays and indecision and its implementation is still in the air. As a result, SOCOM is looking to acquire its own light attack aircraft assets.
The aircraft leveraged in both the Armed Overwatch Program and the Air Force’s Light Attack Aircraft program share a number of similarities, most notably, their low-cost use of classic turboprop engines that harken aesthetically back to the fighters of the second World War.
“This is not a rehash of the Air Force light-attack program,” Slife said. “SOCOM envisions this as more of a multi-role platform that can perform level delivery of precision munitions. It’s really a multirole airplane that’s capable of operating with a very light logistics footprint in small, disaggregated teams in very austere regions.”
SOCOM plans to purchase approximately 75 aircraft, with the Sierra Nevada Corp., Textron Aviation, Air Tractor, and Leidos having shown an interest in a potential contract.
“I would suggest to you that if we want to maintain pressure on those violent extremist organizations that pose a threat to the United States — that pose a threat to the homeland — we may need to remain engaged in portions of Africa against very specific threats and not just broadly, anywhere where there’s an extremist, but specifically where those that pose an external threat are,” Slife said.
SOCOM’s continuous desire for the Armed Overwatch Program offers a glimpse around the corner with regard to the future of US special operations. It seems that American commandos will be fighting both violent extremist organizations but also be ready to deploy against a near-peer competitor.