SOCOM Keeps Pushing for New ‘Armed Overwatch’ Aircraft
Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Joel Miller
Despite hurdles, Air Force Special Operations Command is still gung-ho about purchasing a replacement for its U-28A Draco manned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform that will also be able to offer air support to commandos on the ground in austere regions.
The system — known as Armed Overwatch — is envisioned as a commercially available, multi-role airplane that will contribute to Special Operations Command’s counterterrorism mission at lower cost than high-end platforms, said SOCOM Commander Gen. Richard Clarke.
“This program will provide cost-effective, multipurpose aircraft to support operations in remote, austere areas for the foreseeable future,” he said in his prepared testimony for a March hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In many remote areas, ISR assets are currently “stretched thin and come at high cost,” he noted.
However, the Armed Overwatch initiative recently hit some roadblocks after lawmakers in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act barred the command from beginning procurement this fiscal year as originally planned.
Congressional defense committees also asked SOCOM to conduct additional analysis to evaluate whether other material solutions or existing aircraft might meet the program’s requirements, said Navy Cmdr. Tim Hawkins, a command spokesperson.
The command awarded a contract to RAND Corp. in November for the analysis, he said in a statement to National Defense. That study was slated to be completed at the end of March.
“We are wrapping up some of the back and forth between SOCOM and the defense oversight committees on the Hill,” said Lt. Gen. James “Jim” Slife, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command.
Once the study is finished, the command plans to demonstrate an Armed Overwatch capability with industry in the coming months, he said during a media roundtable at the Air Force Association’s Aerospace Warfare Symposium in February.
“We’re on track easily to execute and complete our industry demonstrations before the end of this fiscal year,” he said. “We’re in really, really healthy shape on that right now.”
Congress appropriated money in the fiscal year 2021 budget for Special Operations Command to continue research-and-development work on the program including the demo before AFSOC goes to a procurement decision, Slife said. Because of this, “I don’t anticipate that we would get into aircraft procurement until FY ‘22 at the earliest,” he noted during a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event.
The command expects four to seven industry partners to participate in the demonstration which will showcase a spectrum of capabilities and ideas for how AFSOC can accomplish the Armed Overwatch mission, he said.
The command is interested in the same “general class of airplanes” as Sierra Nevada and Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano,
Textron/Beechcraft’s AT-6 Wolverine and Textron’s AirLand Scorpion, Slife said.
“We have looked at everything from the existing Air Force platforms, both the ISR [and] close-air support platforms, to off-the-shelf industry platforms to non-developmental platforms industry has been working on [with] their own funding for the last several years,” he said.
Slife said he would be open to including unmanned aircraft, such as the General Atomics-built MQ-9 Reaper, in the demonstration, though he noted that remotely piloted aircraft would likely face significant challenges.
“The only thing that’s unmanned about the RPA business is the cockpit,” Slife said. “There is a tremendous manpower that goes behind that. And when you look at where we intend to operate these platforms and so forth … it needs to be a light footprint. It needs to be able to operate in remote areas in small ... disaggregated formations. And the MQ-9 is a challenging airplane from an infrastructure perspective.”
The command is interested in any platform that can give commandos an Armed Overwatch capability, he said.
“I am not wedded to a manned platform,” Slife said. “I’m not opposed to manned. I’m not opposed to unmanned. I’m just looking to get the mission done.”
However, in a statement, Special Operations Command threw cold water on the idea that an unmanned platform could be used for the Armed Overwatch mission.
“The Armed Overwatch acquisition program aims to provide Special Operations Forces with deployable, affordable and sustainable manned aircraft systems capable of executing close-air support, precision strike and armed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance requirements in austere and permissive environments for use in operations against violent extremist organizations,” Hawkins said.
However, he noted that as part of the RAND study, the command is considering unmanned platforms that could offer commandos a “mix of capabilities” and be complementary to the Armed Overwatch mission.
Moving forward, Slife noted that support for the program varies across the defense committees on Capitol Hill. “Some are more supportive than others, but I think Congress is being prudent about this,” he said. “Ultimately, I believe that SOCOM will be able to demonstrate to the Congress that this is a viable program and it’s required for the future operating environment.”
Slife said he is “cautiously optimistic” that the command will be able to procure the platforms which could be useful in regions such as Africa, where threats to relatively slow-moving aircraft aren’t as high as in other parts of the world where adversaries have advanced air defense systems.
The command is staying firm on its planned acquisition of 75 platforms, he said.
“That’s where I think the sweet spot is, both in terms of being able to sustain the training base to be able to have a sustainable force generation model, and to be able to support the number of ground teams that we anticipate being out in these very small disaggregated environments where we anticipate the Armed Overwatch platform operating,” he said.
A critic of the effort, Richard Aboulafia, vice president of the Teal Group, a Fairfax, Virginia-based defense and aerospace market analysis firm, said the aircraft that SOCOM is considering for the program would be too vulnerable.
“Survivability is just not great at all,” he said. “There’s a reason that no First World countries operate planes in this class.”
Slife pushed back on that notion.
“As envisioned, it is survivable enough to operate in the environment that we anticipate it operating in,” he said. “Clearly, we’re not trying to build an Armed Overwatch platform that would be in a contested First World ... kind of environment. I mean, if we wanted to do that, the Armed Overwatch platform would be the F-35.”
Aboulafia believes a better solution for the mission would be a combination of systems such as a next-generation drone known as the MQ-X, attack helicopters and a light-attack aircraft such as the A-10 Warthog that could be obtained from the other services, he said.
“SOCOM has never been shy about operating used equipment or other people’s equipment,” he noted.
Aboulafia was also critical of the number of aircraft the command wants to procure.
“I’m still not really sure how you could use 75 in the context of the broader SOCOM force structure,” he said. “Most of SOCOM’s fleet are smaller and frankly, more exotic, from the Wolfhound to the MH-47 to the MH-60 to the CV-22.”
The fact that Congress asked the command to conduct further studies of potential alternatives suggests that the program will be “tremendously contested,” he added.
Mark Cancian, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ International Security Program, noted that when the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was in charge of the Senate Armed Services Committee, there was much more support for light-attack aircraft.
“Congress has shifted … to putting the brakes on what the department is doing,” he said.
Based on congressional language, there is definite opposition to the effort, he noted.
“Looking at all of that, it’s very discouraging,” Cancian said. “Plus, this is a very different kind of program. … The United States hasn’t had a program like this … since the Vietnam War, when they had the A-1s doing exactly this mission — a propeller-driven aircraft designed to drop bombs on insurgents as a low-cost alternative to high-performance aircraft that had been designed for other kinds of missions.”
Moving forward, AFSOC will need to garner backing on Capitol Hill to ensure that the program does not end up on the chopping block, Cancian said.
“Lining up congressional support is important and making the pitch to Congress … has been their big stumbling block,” he said of SOCOM. “They got it into the DoD budget” request, he noted. “They convinced DoD that there was a use here, and I think that the Air Force was relatively OK [with it] because of the argument that they didn’t want to chew up F-35 lifetime on these kinds of missions.”
John Venable, senior research fellow for defense policy at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, said SOCOM should be able to convince lawmakers that there is a need for the platform.
“You don’t have to look very far to find the need. We lost several special ops folks … [a few] years ago in Africa, because there was no air support,” he said, referring to an ambush in 2017 near the village of Tongo Tongo, Niger, that left four American and four local soldiers dead after taking enemy fire from ISIS affiliated militants.
Armed Overwatch “is a direct linkage to that,” Venable said. “The need is absolutely there.”
Venable believes that a manned platform is the right choice for AFSOC.
“If you look at what ... a Reaper costs in order to keep top cover over a small contingent of folks — and you have that capability 24 hours a day — you’re going to need three or four drones,” he said. “You’re going to need at least two cycles of air crew that are on watch all the time.”
The drones will also require runways that are pristine and debris free, whereas some light-attack aircraft can fly out of more rugged airfields, Venable noted.
Additionally, the areas in which SOCOM plans to use the aircraft will not be high threat environments where they will face surface-to-air missiles that are radar guided, he said. It’s possible they could encounter shoulder-launched SAMs but there are countermeasures that light-attack aircraft could deploy, he added.
“You don’t want to put aircraft and aircrew at risk unnecessarily, but when you have Americans [on the ground] that are doing their job and they are in harm’s way, you’re going to put everything you need” in the air to protect them, Venable said. “That’s what airmen do and that’s what we need to have the ability to do.”
Lawmakers must act quickly to give AFSOC the capability it is asking for, he said.
“The SOF community does not need another study,” Venable said. “They need to go out and grab these airplanes and start fielding them now to give their folks top cover. That needs to be urgent.”