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Special Operations Command’s commando aircraft are in jeopardy

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special operations close air support training

One of the US special operations community’s most important programs might be in jeopardy according to the government watchdog’s latest assessment.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommends the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) slow down its Armed Overwatch program and conduct further planning and analysis of the command’s actual requirements.

The Armed Overwatch program plans to acquire 75 AT-802U Sky Warden light aircraft to provide close air support capabilities to special operations forces around the world.

More data needed for Armed Overwatch

The Armed Overwatch program remains key for the special operations community.

In its latest report on the Armed Overwatch program, GAO found that when SOCOM and the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) conducted their analysis on how many aircraft they would need for the Armed Overwatch program they “relied on unproven assumptions” that don’t justify the number of 75 aircraft that they have requested.

In its assessment titled Special Operations Forces: DOD Should Slow Acquisition of Armed Overwatch Aircraft Until It Conducts Needed Analysis, GAO found that SOCOM and AFSOC could do with a much smaller fleet, though the report didn’t specify exactly how many aircraft would suffice.

Now the ball is back in SOCOM’s court, and it will need to justify the 75 aircraft to move the program forward or propose an adjusted number.

Related: Navy SEALs and Delta Force commandos living together in the jungles of South America

AT-802U Sky Warden
The AT-802U Sky Warden aircraft. (L3 Harris Technologies)

The Armed Overwatch program has been in the works for several years, and only in 2022 did SOCOM select the single-engine, two-person AT-802U Sky Warden by L3 Harris Technologies and Air Tractor as its candidate for the program. The program is set to begin in fiscal year 2025 and cost approximately $2.2 billion through fiscal year 2029.

Don’t get it wrong. The special operations community needs the Armed Overwatch program. Operators will tell you that the safety net of an AC-130 gunship, AH-6 Little Bird, or AH-64 Apache overflying the battlefield is invaluable when the going gets tough. However, it looks like SOCOM and AFSOC will need to find exactly how many aircraft are realistically needed and what exactly their capabilities will be otherwise the overall program will be jeopardized.

Related: The social hierarchy of US special operations units

What commandos on the ground need

Special Operations Terminal Attack Controllers close air support
Special Operations Terminal Attack Controllers call in close air support from an A-10C Thunderbolt II at Moody Air Force Base, GA, May 10, 2021. The training gave the SOTACs an opportunity to call in CAS from various aircraft. This reinforces past knowledge to ensure proficiency in the operational environment. (US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Ethan Green)

Sandboxx News spoke to current and former special operators with close air support experience to get an understanding of what the users are looking to get from the Armed Overwatch program.

“A good [close air support (CAS)] platform is both a weapon and a sensor for the ground guys,” a former Air Commando told Sandboxx News.

“It needs to have the proper arsenal to deal with several potential threats on the ground, including concentrations of enemy troops, individual enemy fighters, fortified positions, etc. But it also needs to be able to use its sensors to provide timely and accurate information on the ground,” he said. “Is there a group of fighters moving in the opposite direction of the ground force? Is an individual hiding in a compound waiting to ambush the operators? A good CAS platform will be able to provide that information and also have the necessary munitions to take care of business if necessary,” the former Air Force special operator added.

Another thing that is important for a close air support platform is loiter time, which is the time the aircraft can remain flying over a target. An aircraft needs to be able to remain overhead for long periods so that there is no gap in coverage.

“I want my CAS platform to be able to quickly assess my situation and be empathetic and on the same page. Things can get hairy pretty quickly and the number one thing I want a CAS platform to do is to recognize what’s going on and be thinking a few steps ahead. However, the ground force commander still has the final say, so I also need those aircraft to be willing to hear out our strategy,” the former Air Commando added.

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Stavros Atlamazoglou

Greek Army veteran (National service with 575th Marines Battalion and Army HQ). Johns Hopkins University. You will usually find him on the top of a mountain admiring the view and wondering how he got there.