For the past few years, a low-intensity conflict has raged inside the Pentagon over how U.S. special operations forces are going to counter terrorist and extremist organizations in an era of great-power competition against China and Russia.

The U.S. Special Operations Command’s desire for its own small special operations aircraft to support its units is at the heart of the debate. Commandos want to have their own cheap aircraft and not have to depend on fighter jets, such as the F-22 or the F-35, that cost between $30,000 to $70,000 an hour to operate.

SOCOM wants a “multi-role capability that could provide both intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance overhead but also is prepared to fire munitions in support of a team that could be in harm’s way,” Gen. Richard Clarke, SOCOM’s commanding general, told lawmakers at a recent House Armed Services subcommittee hearing.

The Armed Overwatch Program, as the latest effort is known, has faced backlash from the Air Force, which had been pursuing its own light attack aircraft, and from Congress, which wants to ensure it doesn’t end up funding two similar programs.

Despite these obstacles, SOCOM has been moving forward, and the competition has reached its final stages with five aircraft battling to become the next special operations plane.

A Special Operations Aircraft

Beechcraft AT-6 Light Attack Experiment
An AT-6 aircraft during the US Air Force’s Light Attack Experiment at Holloman Air Force Base. (Photo by Ethan D. Wagner/U.S. Air Force)

The five finalists are the Bronco II, MC-208 Guardian, AT-6E Wolverine, AT-802U Sky Warden, and MC-145B Wily Coyote.

The Air Force’s A-10 Thunderbolt II and AC-130 gunship and the Army’s AH-64 Apache helicopter are not part of the competition, but they are highly regarded among troops, so an Armed Overwatch competitor that could provide similar capabilities would likely have an edge.

Each aircraft has its strengths and weaknesses, and although it will fall to SOCOM to determine which is more suitable for the mission, special operators on the ground desire three things: loiter time; a potent and diverse arsenal; and strong intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities.