The Air Force’s Special Operations Command (AFSOC) is trying to convince Congress to approve its much-needed “Armed Overwatch” aircraft in the 2022 budget. 

When speaking to the news media earlier this week, Lieutenant-General James Slife, the commander of AFSOC, said that this program is not a rehash of the earlier Air Force light attack program, but a response to the need for a much more versatile aircraft platform that AFSOC is looking for

“I think SOCOM [Special Operations Command] envisions this as more of a multirole platform that can perform level delivery of precision munitions,” Slife said. “The first step really is getting to a flying demonstration, which we anticipate is going to take place in the coming months.”

“I think we can do that at relatively low risk, based on what we’ve seen from the vendors who have indicated that they intend to bring platforms to demonstrate for us in the coming months,” he added.

The Air Force is planning on conducting several flying demonstrations of multiple armed overwatch aircraft capable of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions as well as close-air support and precision strike in support of Special Operations ground troops. Following these demonstrations, AFSOC is hoping for procurement to start in fiscal 2022

The Air Force set aside $101 million in the FY2021 budget to buy the first five of a planned 75 aircraft to replace the aging U-28. Textron Aviation, Air Tractor, Sierra Nevada Corp., and Leidos are considered the main competitors for the contract.

SOCOM anticipates that budgets are going to be cut in the near future, after decades of nothing but increasing budgets for the nation’s special operations forces. SOCOM still sees the need for versatile platforms that can support SOF in austere environments. 

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Unlike conflicts such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria where an abundance of aircraft could be flying overhead to support troops on the ground, in other areas, that type of support will not be as readily available during counter-terrorism missions. 

In places like western Africa, Somalia, and other hotspots, special operation forces need a versatile aircraft with the capacity to remain on station for several hours. Further, it needs to be equipped with state-of-the-art intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) sensors, and communication equipment in support of small SOF units operating in high-risk environments. 

Besides its intelligence-gathering side, the armed overwatch aircraft will also carry guns, precision-guided munitions, and other weapons that will provide small SOF units the support required for them to operate in austere environments. 

Back in 2017, one Special Forces team in Niger was conducting a mission against al-Qaeda-aligned insurgents when it was ambushed by a numerically superior force. With no air support available, the SF troops and their Nigerien counterparts suffered heavy casualties with four American SF troops and five Nigerien troops killed. 

The armed overwatch program isn’t looking for a high-speed, high-cost aircraft for these special operations missions. “The armed overwatch platform will be less expensive to operate [than the U-28],” Slife said. “It will be more versatile than the U-28, and frankly, we’ll have a greater capacity to operate in those small disaggregated kinds of teams.”

“The whole reason we’re doing this is because the National Defense Strategy talks about the need to do cost-effective operations, cost-effective irregular warfare,” Slife added. “So the operating environment where we currently operate U-28s is about the same operating environment where we would envision operating armed overwatch platforms.”