Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is working through the Air Force Special Operations (AFSOC) to purchase up to 75 “armed overwatch” planes that will conduct intelligence, reconnaissance, and Close Air Support (CAS) missions.

SOCOM’s armed overwatch aircraft is envisioned to operate in close conjunction with special operations troops on the ground. The versatile aircraft can scout out, tracking enemy combatants while providing the ability to conduct airstrikes in support of troops on the ground. The “Armed Overwatch” aircraft is projected to operate in theaters where enemies have low air defense capabilities, such as Africa, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

When SOCOM’s Directorate of Procurement released its budget request, it envisioned an aircraft 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.” 

This isn’t actually anything new. During the Vietnam War, Special Forces troops relied heavily on older Douglas A-1 Skyraider ground support aircraft for their operations

Air Force Lieutenant General James C. “Jim” Slife, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, said recently that the SOF troops on the ground need a versatile aircraft that is capable of performing a multitude of missions. 

“What SOCOM needs is a platform that it can operate from austere regions and provide surveillance and precision fires in support of small disaggregated ground teams.”

The Air Force experimented with a “Light Attack Aircraft” program; it has since been discontinued. The hope is for SOCOM and AFSOC to find an aircraft capable of performing the CAS while fulfilling ISR functions; SOCOM currently uses U-28 Draco for ISR.

Slife also mentioned that with the recent shift in the Pentagon’s policies vis-à-vis near-peer adversaries, SOCOM warriors will have to be ready to take on much tougher missions.