Get Ready for Sky Warden: First Delivery Set for October

U.S. Special Operations Command will start accepting delivery in October of Sky Warden, the modified crop-duster that won its Armed Overwatch competition last year. Already in low-rate production, SOCOM is expecting 26 aircraft as part of low-rate initial production.

Those aircraft will go through operational testing and a full-rate production decision will follow as soon as March 2025, a SOCOM spokesman told Air & Space Forces Magazine. The low-rate production decision was first reported by FlightGlobal

All told, SOCOM plans to acquire 75 Sky Warden aircraft to fly surveillance, close air support, and precision strike missions in austere but permissive environments, such as counter-insurgency operations in Africa or the Middle East. SOCOM and Air Force Special Operations Command officials have said they currently rely on a variety of different aircraft to perform those functions separately and want one platform to “collapse the stack.” 

Sky Warden, selected by SOCOM in August 2022, was developed in collaboration by L3Harris and Air Tractor. Based on the AT-802 aircraft, which is used for agriculture and firefighting, it is rugged, with chunky tires built for primitive airfields and a NASCAR-style roll cage to protect the two-man crew. 

Designed to be modular, capable of swapping out different sensors, communications equipment, and combat payloads as needed, Sky Warden has “the largest payload capacity of any single turbine engine aircraft,” L3 Harris claims. 

“You can outfit the aircraft with a robust suite of sensors that will exceed what is available with most dedicated ISR platforms today,” said then AFSOC commander Lt. Gen. James C. “Jim” Slife in 2022, now deputy Air Force chief of staff for operations. “Or you can outfit the platform with a robust suite of precision munitions. It really depends on the mission. Clearly, the Armed Overwatch platform is not a panacea for every tactical situation that a ground force might find themselves in. But for what we envision the enduring counter-[violent extremist organization] mission looking like, we think it’s a prudent investment.”   

Because Sky Warden is based on an existing system, L3Harris has claimed it can be delivered in less than 12 months. An October 2023 delivery date would be slightly out of that timeframe, as the aircraft are modified for military use. An L3Harris spokesperson referred comment to SOCOM. 

Plans for the aircraft to reach initial operational capability and full operational capability remain on track though, with the Special Operations Command spokesman saying IOC is scheduled for September 2025 and FOC is set for September 2029. Both dates are on the tail end of previously-stated timelines for fiscal 2025 and 2029. 

The Air Force has said it plans to base its formal training unit for Sky Warden at Will Rogers Air National Guard Base, Okla., replacing the MC-12W Liberty and its schoolhouse there. The service said it intends to place 28 aircraft and about 80 personnel as part of the unit, with an official stand-up in the second quarter of 2024.