Congress Questions Need for New Armed Overwatch Planes for SOCOM

Congress wants to pump the brakes on U.S. Special Operations Command’s effort to buy a new plane for armed overwatch in remote areas, after many lawmakers recently supported a similar Air Force program.

SOCOM wants a relatively uncomplicated, affordable aircraft that can offer airstrike backup as well as keep an eye on the battleground below to coordinate combat action and watch adversary movements.

Sierra Nevada Corp., Textron Aviation, Air Tractor, and Leidos are offering designs like the A-29 and Bronco II for a three-part competition that ends with live-fly demonstrations in November. SOCOM’s initiative follows the Air Force’s nearly three-year light attack experiment with some of the same platforms. Vocal congressional support faded after the service decided not to purchase multiple squadrons’ worth of new planes.

Now lawmakers are questioning the value of the program for special-operations personnel and threatening to cut most, if not all, funding. In the Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the 2021 defense policy bill, lawmakers want to stop Air Force Special Operations Command from buying an armed overwatch platform until the Air Force’s top officer ensures the service can’t offer that capability itself.

Senators call on Pentagon leadership to describe why SOCOM would need such an aircraft, and whether there’s another way to get the benefits of a new plane without buying one. The committee worries that SOCOM doesn’t have a valid requirement for the platform and that the purchase wouldn’t be cost-effective.

“The committee is concerned that the rapid acquisition timeline being pursued by SOCOM does not allow for adequate consideration of: the cost of operating and sustaining the aircraft; the potential negative impacts on an already stressed community of pilots, aircrews, and maintainers; and how such a costly addition fits into SOCOM’s medium-to-long-term airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability roadmap,” according to the bill.

SASC legislation would zero out funding for a new armed overwatch program and five planes, valued at $101 million for 2021. SOCOM should instead use its resources to replace aircraft lost in combat and for other equipment, senators said.

The issue is more contentious in the House Armed Services Committee, which wants to cut $80 million from the program while seeking many of the same assurances that a new plane is necessary. An amendment offered by Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), an early proponent of giving the aircraft to SOCOM, opposes that move. He would instead add another $32 million, totaling about $133 million for armed overwatch.

But Waltz also floated a provision that would halt procurement until the Pentagon sends Congress a five-year buy plan, details on what it would take to sustain the aircraft, and information on how SOCOM would phase out its existing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance planes like the U-28, among other specifics.

“This was a compromise with majority and minority members/staff,” a Hill staffer told Air Force Magazine. “There are concerns for the armed overwatch program, so this allows questions and concerns to be reported to HASC before [SOCOM is] allowed to procure.”

Waltz last year criticized the Air Force for moving too slowly to buy a light-attack plane, even suggesting the possibility of letting the Army take the reins.

“Whether it’s Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, South America, we are going to be engaged with our local partners on the ground in low-intensity conflict, I think, for the foreseeable future,” he said in 2019. “We are in a generational war against extremism. To that end, we can’t shift too far away from our counterterrorism mission toward near-peer competition.”

SOCOM ultimately wants to buy up to 75 aircraft over five to seven years.