SOCOM Announces Plans to Buy 75 ‘Armed Overwatch’ Planes

US Special Operations Command is moving forward with its armed overwatch plan, independent of the Air Force’s light attack experiment, inviting industry for a briefing on a proposal to buy an estimated 75 aircraft.

SOCOM will hold Industry Days March 4-5 for the Armed Overwatch program, which will “provide Special Operations Forces deployable and sustainable manned aircraft systems” that will be used for “close air support, precision strike, and SOF intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in austere and permissive environments,” according to a Feb. 3 announcement.

SOCOM plans to release a draft Other Transaction Authority prototype demonstration proposal, which gives the military a way to pursue research and prototyping outside of regular contracts, on Feb. 14. The eventual follow-on contract is expected to be an indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity, with a base ordering period of five years and another option for two more years with an expected total of 75 aircraft, according to the announcement, which was first reported by Aviation Week.

Will Roper, the service’s acquisition boss, said in November the light attack experiment could split into an effort for armed overwatch as special operations forces have called for the service to address a pressing need for more protection from the air—a shift away from the original intent of the light attack experiment.

“There are systems right now that we don’t really think of as being in the [US Special Operations Command] portfolio, like MQ-9s, that we’d like to explore and see, can they do a better job?” Roper told reporters. “Experimentation with systems we have now, I think is a great way to try to go after that role.” 

The Air Force in October 2019 announced plans to purchase small numbers of AT-6 and A-29 aircraft as part of its light attack experiment. While the AT-6s will go to Air Combat Command for tactics development, Air Force Special Operations Command will use the A-29s to create an instructor pilot program for those who advise foreign nations on air warfare.

The slow process of the experiment, which started in 2017 with evaluations of the aircraft, along with Air Tractor and L3Harris’ AT-802 Longsword at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, to procurement has frustrated some lawmakers. Some called for legislation to give procurement authority to SOCOM if the Air Force doesn’t buy a fleet of the aircraft.

While the adopted fiscal 2020 defense policy bill does not force that shift, it does encourage both the Air Force and SOCOM to “maximize efficiency and effectiveness and to further the mission requirements of both forces” by giving SOCOM funding to buy aircraft.