Businesswire reports that US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), as of August 1st, has chosen the L3Harris AT-802U Sky Warden aircraft for its armed overwatch program. The contract is worth up to $3 billion and calls for the delivery of 75 specialized, fixed-wing aircraft. If you are an aviation enthusiast, the plane may look familiar. That’s because it’s based on the Air Tractor AT-802U, well known for crop dusting and firefighting.

The deal includes training, mission planning, and plenty of spare parts. The first aircraft is due to be put into operation in 2026.

Air Force Magazine reports that Air Tractor and L3Harris jointly unveiled the Sky Warden for the first time in May of 2021. It beat out five finalists for the government contract. In addition, they note that the airframe utilized by the Sky Warden can carry a greater payload than any other single-engine turboprop plane.

The platform is equally good for spraying crops and hunting bad guys—screenshot from YouTube via Weapons of the World.

Wondering where the name came from? The online magazine, Flying, tells us it’s a nod to two aircraft with storied special operations histories; the Douglas A-1 Skyraider and the U-28 Draco. The Skyraider provided close air support to ground troops in Vietnam, and the Draco belongs to the Air Force Special Operations Command 319th, 34th, and 318th surveillance, reconnaissance, and airborne intelligence units.

In a statement released by SOCOM, Commander General Richard Clarke stated,

“This rugged, sustainable platform will operate in permissive environments and austere conditions around the world to safeguard our Special Operations Forces on the ground.”

On its website, L3Harris notes that it plans to “rapidly modify” its prototype aircraft into the “production configuration” within six months so that the weapons systems can be tested at that time. In addition, they note that “mission configured” aircraft will start to be produced next year in their Tulsa, Oklahoma modification center after initial airframe construction at Air Tractor’s Olney, Texas plant.

They are understandably quite proud of their product; Air Tractor President Jim Hirsch says, “The Sky Warden design reflects our commitment to America’s national security, and the AT-802U will be equipped with everything we’ve learned manufacturing aircraft over the past 46 years,” He continues, “The L3Harris team is an excellent partner, and our production and engineering staff are ready to immediately deliver this world-class product to our nation’s special forces.”

An under-wing shot of the new plane. Screenshot from YouTube via Weapons of the World.

Armed Overwatch

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering what “Armed Overwatch” is all about. I’ll explain. Back in the days of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, we discovered a need for a manned surveillance/close air support aircraft (CAS) that could operate out of isolated, rugged terrain. A-10s are great, but they will not be taking off or landing from smallish, bumpy fields. So in addition to its surveillance role, we (“we” being US ground forces) wanted an agile aircraft capable of executing limited-scale airstrikes during counterinsurgency (COIN) operations.

The “powers that be” at SOCOM lobbied for an armed reconnaissance aircraft (for many years), and eventually, the Armed Overwatch program was born. Our friends at Popular Science have reported on this and note that “Armed Overwatch” was the program’s name that led to the design and construction of the Sky Warden. If you like reading in detail how your tax dollars are being spent, here is a link to the federal government’s announcement regarding the program’s funding.

Here is a brief summary for those who don’t like that much detail:

The August 1st announcement states that the program “will provide Special Operations Forces deployable, affordable, and sustainable crewed aircraft systems fulfilling close air support, precision strike, and armed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, requirements in austere and permissive environments for use in irregular warfare operations in support of the National Defense Strategy.”

Here is an excellent five-minute video from Ed Nash’s Military Matters featuring footage of the new Sky Warden in flight. As you’ll see, the cockpit(s) look more like they belong to a fighter than a converted crop duster.

Video courtesy of YouTube and Ed Nash’s Military Matters. 

What Not A Drone?

I’ve waited until the end to answer the question many of you must be thinking. That is, “Why don’t use just use a drone instead?” That’s a fair question; on paper, some drones perform many of the same functions as the Sky Warden without endangering a pilot.

The operator on the ground wants a set of human eyes in the air looking at the same thing he is. He wants to talk to that pilot about the situation in front of them and have the confidence that, when deemed necessary, the trigger will be pulled and the weapons deployed on the right target at the right time.