U.S. Special Operations Command expects a future armed overwatch fleet to quickly reach full utilization, including one squadron deployed at all times, to meet a growing global need for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
SOCOM wants to buy 75 of the aircraft, and Air Force Special Operations Command has said it wants procurement to start in fiscal 2022. SOCOM boss Army Gen. Richard D. Clarke, in testimony to the House Armed Services subcommittee on intelligence and special operations, said the armed overwatch program is coming on as existing systems are aging out, showing the requirement for the aircraft procurement to continue.
“Modernization of ISR is one of our top priorities,” Clarke said. “Not just armed overwatch, but we see armed overwatch as a very cost-effective, long-term approach to support our SOF teams in the future.”
Armed overwatch is expected to replace the Air Force’s U-28 Draco fleet. Clarke said these aircraft will soon require a complete re-winging, at a cost approaching that of the total armed overwatch effort.
Congress blocked SOCOM from procuring armed overwatch aircraft in its fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, but it authorized the command to continue with demonstrations. In May, SOCOM awarded $19.2 million to five companies for prototype demonstrations as part of the effort. The aircraft selected to proceed are:
- Leidos Inc.’s Bronco II
- MAG Aerospace’s MC-208 Guardian
- Textron Aviation Defense’s AT-6E Wolverine
- L-3 Communications Integrated Systems’ AT-802U Sky Warden
- Sierra Nevada Corp.’s MC-145B Wily Coyote.
This prototype effort will take place at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., and will be completed by March 2022. If successful, a company could be requested to provide a proposal for a follow-on award.
Clarke said he envisions four squadrons flying 15 of the aircraft each, with an additional 10-15 to be used for training. This would provide enough for a squadron to always be deployed. While Africa is typically used as an example location for where the aircraft could be used, Clarke said he could see it providing ISR, and [strikes] if needed, at places such as the Philippines, Thailand, and South America.
As SOCOM “looks globally, where SOF forces are deployed today and where [they will] be deployed in the future, we do think that the operating concept we have for these aircraft would, in fact, get to full utilization in the future,” Clarke said.