Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has a well-deserved reputation for innovative, one-off, and rapid acquisition programs. It has also pioneered the repurposing of commercial platforms and systems to get an 80 percent solution out to special operators rapidly.
Now Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) has taken this approach to a new level with its Armed Overwatch program. This is an effort to acquire 75 light aircraft to provide a combination of tactical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), communications, and strike for SOCOM forces deployed in austere environments. AFSOC selected five companies to participate in a prototype demonstration with the idea of selecting one to begin production in Fiscal Year 2022. They are proposing what can only be described as a heterogeneous set of platforms, including a version of a purpose-built military aircraft; a variant of a primary trainer aircraft in wide use with the U.S. and foreign militaries; a Polish-designed cargo aircraft; a repurposed popular utility aircraft; and a derivative of a crop duster.
The goal of the Armed Overwatch program is to provide SOCOM with a standalone, low-end surveillance and strike capability. Over the past twenty-plus years of fighting violent extremists, SOCOM has developed an approach to air support that is extremely resource intensive, requires stacking a mix of aircraft and unmanned aerial systems of various types, and risks over-reliance on high demand/low density assets that may be less available to SOCOM in an era of high-end competition or conflict. Armed Overwatch is intended to move away from this reliance on a complex mix of high-end platforms that require large, fixed infrastructure. AFSOC commander Lt. Gen. James C. Slife described Armed Overwatch as “a very cost effective way of providing that air support to our ground teammates who are going to be prosecuting these Counter-Violent Extremist Operations (C-VEO) for years to come.”
What does AFSOC want in an Armed Overwatch platform? One would think that if the command is looking at an armed trainer, converted crop dusters, and a variant of a cargo aircraft, there would be few, relatively simple requirements. But in truth, this is not the case. The chosen system is a multi-role aircraft capable of performing well in both ISR and close air support missions. It must be flexible, with reconfigurable ISR and the ability to carry different types of munitions. The platform must be able to fly from austere airfields with a light logistical footprint. It must be transportable, either in a C-130 or C-17 to an intermediate staging airfield or self-deployable to its operating destination.
Given its missions, the chosen aircraft must have significant range and endurance with a substantial payload, plus the capability to loiter for hours over an area of interest. While it will operate in a relatively low-threat environment, the aircraft must have basic survivability characteristics. Finally, it must be relatively cheap to acquire and have a lower cost to operate than the U-28A Draco, which the Armed Overwatch aircraft will replace.
One of the most interesting candidates is the Bronco II, offered by a team led by Leidos with the American subsidiary of the South African Paramount Group providing the aircraft. It is a derivative of the Mwari, the militarized version of the Advanced High-Performance Reconnaissance Light Aircraft. It is the only entrant designed from the wheels up to be an ISR and close air support platform for austere environments. The aircraft has 19 dedicated mounting points for antennas and sensors and can conduct simultaneous ISR and close air support missions. The Bronco II is unusual in having a dual boom tail and being powered by a pusher propeller. It is relatively cheap to operate, can be broken down for transport and then reassembled in a few hours, and is easy to maintain. Its reconfigurable mission bay allows for the easy swapping out of sensors.
Another candidate is Textron’s AT-6E Wolverine. This is an enhanced version of the venerable T-6 prop trainer in widespread use in the U.S. military and around the world. As a result, the Wolverine is a low-risk platform, providing relatively low-cost sustainment and maintenance, a global logistics support capability, an existing training base, and a small footprint. The AT-6E demonstrated its ability to serve as an ISR and close air support platform during the Air Force’s ill-fated Light Air Support experiment. Like the Bronco II, the Wolverine would need to be disassembled for transport to regions of interest.
A quite different kind of candidate is the MC-145B Wily Coyote proposed by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC). The Wily Coyote is based on the Polish PZL M28 Skytruck, a short takeoff and landing light cargo and passenger plane in use with AFSOC. It is a two-engine aircraft with a large payload capacity and the ability to self-deploy, obviating the need for disassembly/reassembly and transport on a larger cargo aircraft. Its large capacity allows for great flexibility in equipment and growth potential for additional missions and new sensor/weapons payloads as the character of the C-VEO threat evolves. SNC also has extensive experience in modifying commercial aircraft in support of SOCOM missions.
The other two candidates, the AT-802U Sky Warden and the L3Harris MC-208 Guardian, are quite unusual aircraft. The Sky Warden is a derivative of the Air Tractor, designed to support agricultural activities such as crop dusting, while the Guardian is a militarized version of the Cessna Caravan, an extremely popular commercial prop aircraft. Both can operate from austere airfields and are relatively easy to break down/reassemble and maintain. They both have significant range depending on the sensor/weapons payloads they carry. The Sky Warden and Guardian will require extensive modification to be capable of performing the missions envisioned by AFSOC.
Evaluating these aircraft against a set of already challenging requirements will be tough enough for AFSOC. The five competitors are so different that it will likely be difficult to perform a comparative evaluation. Several will have to undergo extensive modifications to meet the minimum thresholds for the flyoff. When considerations of supportability, training, flexibility, and growth potential are included, AFSOC may find itself confronting multiple dilemmas in downselecting to one aircraft.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Gouré has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.