In its quest for more effective close-air support (CAS), the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is turning away from the Air Force and is looking to purchase its own aircraft.
According to a solicitation published on the U.S. government’s site, SOCOM is looking to set up a fleet of at least 75 armed overwatch aircraft. The most likely candidates for the program are the AT-6 Wolverine and A-29 Super Tucano.
SOCOM’s intend for the aircraft is to provide “Special Operations Forces (SOF) deployable and sustainable manned aircraft systems fulfilling Close Air Support (CAS), Precision Strike, and SOF Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance (ISR) in austere and permissive environments.”
For some time now, the different Special Operations components have requested more air protection, whether that is close-air support or reconnaissance. Back in October, the Air Force announced its Light Attack initiative. The program aims to experiment with light-attack aircraft for the purposes of close-air support in an environment of air superiority. The concept is ideal for counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations.
But SOCOM’s concern is that the Air Force is taking its time in selecting the ideal aircraft. So now, the Special Operations Command seeks to cut the “middleman” and field a fleet on its own. If the initiative is greenlighted by the lawmakers, it will fall under the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), the Air Force’s SOF component command, to provide the crews and maintenance personnel.
Interestingly, SOCOM is opting for manned as opposed to remotely-piloted aircraft (RPAs). But some of its units have been devastatingly effective with RPAs. The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment’s (Airborne) RPA elements (Foxtrot and Echo Companies) have been taking names ever since they were activated.
Last year, Echo Company was declared the Unmanned Aircraft Systems unit of the Year. In support of Operation Freedom Sentinel (Afghanistan) and Operation Inherent Resolve (anti-ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria), Echo Company conducted approximately 1,063 combat sorties (about 10,387 hours of combat operations) in support of U.S. and Coalition Special Operations units. The unit was credited with 340 Enemy Killed in Action (EKIA) and 38 Enemy Wounded in Action (EWIA). But they did more than stack bodies. The unit also conducted hours of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and target acquisition missions.
Foxtrot and Echo Companies utilize the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-1C Gray Eagle Extended Range RPAs.
But the 160th SOAR isn’t the only unit under SOCOM to utilize RPAs. The 75th Ranger Regiment is also fielding RPAs in its Military Intelligence Battalion (MIB), the newest addition to the Regiment. Although the Regiment still depends on other units for its close-air support, the inclusion of organic RPAs signals a desire to be independent.