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.”

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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. 

“As the larger joint force pivots towards great power competition and so forth, … we probably won’t enjoy the same support necessarily for those small disaggregated SOF teams because there will be higher priority things that the airplanes that have been performing this kind of mission need to do,” Slife said.

“We use things like AC-130 gunships or A-10s or F-16s or a host of other platforms that can employ these precision fires. And so, the question is: ‘How do we find a low-cost, simple airplane that can … provide capability in both of these areas in a single airplane from a pretty austere operating footprint?'” Slife said.

The AC-130 is a proven outstanding ground support aircraft, but it only operates in conditions of darkness. Many Special Operations missions working with and through our partners are conducted during daylight hours. During daylight deployments outside of major theaters of operation such as Africa, Special Operations troops rarely have dedicated close air support available to them. SOCOM’s need for a small footprint, low cost, multi-role aircraft capable of supporting SOF partnered operations in daylight is a priority that needs to be addressed.

The key for the new aircraft is for it to be versatile enough to support a variety of mission types on the ground. And the need to train the pilots on the different kinds of flying expertise needed. SOCOM has been purposefully vague in its description of what the “Armed Overwatch” aircraft requirements will, since it hopes that this will galvanize the aircraft industry in coming up with their best ideas.

SOCOM asked for $101 million from 2021’s budget for the Armed Overwatch Program. This initial amount would cover the purchase and fielding of five aircraft as well as spares and the required support equipment. However, the hope is in the future to spend $893 million to buy the 75 planes envisioned.

SOCOM also asked for $5 million in research, development, test, and evaluation funding for the program. This is for the development, integration, and testing of Special Operations capabilities and airworthiness.

The need for SOCOM’s Armed Overwatch Program to provide Special Operations troops deployed the versatility and effectiveness needed to accomplish their missions in the coming years is apparent.