The plan for a Special Operations aircraft that would provide close air and overwatch support to American commandos is under question by Congress.
The idea for the Armed Overwatch program spawned from the need to provide sufficient platforms to support Special Operations troops and their partner forces in low-intensity conflict scenarios.
The inability of the Air Force to satisfactorily fulfill that role forced the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) to come up with the idea of a Special Operations aircraft that would be tailored for and operated by its troops. More specifically, the fleet of around 75 aircraft would be operated by the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC). AFSOC is one of the four subordinate commands of SOCOM, the other being the United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), the Naval Special Warfare Command (NSWC), and the Marine Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC).
Earlier this year, USSOCOM released a solicitation for its Armed Overwatch program. “Armed Overwatch will 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,” the solicitation read.
Several lawmakers, however, disagree with this program because of the Light Attack Aircraft program, a separate program that the Air Force is pursuing. The Light Attack Aircraft program seeks to provide the Air Force with a fleet of light-attack planes, which would fulfill a similar role to that of SOCOM’s Armed Overwatch program.
Although last February the Air Force announced that it was not going to purchase the initially stated 300 aircraft, it still continues to experiment with the concept. It was the uncertainty that stemmed from this decision — the Light Attack Aircraft program has already been discussed and researched for 3 years — that forced SOCOM to announce its own Armed Overwatch program. But Congress does not wish to commit funds to the Special Operations Command’s scheme until the Air Force makes up its mind about its program. In short, lawmakers want to know the Air Force’s decision before they support SOCOM’s program. But with several ongoing low-intensity conflicts, time is of the essence.
SOCOM has budgeted about $100 million for the purchase of its program’s first five aircraft. Congress, however, has instead proposed to reallocate those funds to cover aircraft losses in the fleet in an attempt to postpone the program until the Air Force makes up its mind.
“The committee is concerned,” read the Congress bill, “that the rapid acquisition timeline being pursued by SOCOM does not allow for adequate consideration of: the cost of operating and sustaining the aircraft; the potential negative impacts on an already stressed community of pilots, aircrews, and maintainers; and how such a costly addition fits into SOCOM’s medium-to-long-term airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability roadmap.”
But not all lawmakers agree with that take. Representative Michael Waltz (R-FL) has pushed for additional funds to SOCOM’s program. His counter-proposal, however, is still in the air.
Some of the platforms that have been proposed for both programs are the AT-6 Wolverine and A-29 Super Tucano turboprop aircraft.