U.S. Armed Overwatch Competition Restarting After Six-Month Hiatus

light attack aircraft on runway
Seeking a gap-filler for the RQ-1 in 2006, Special Operations Command fielded the U-28 by acquiring used PC-12s from the civilian market.
Credit: Staff Sgt. Victor J. Caputo/U.S. Air Force

Starting. Stopping. Restarting. And stopping again. For over a decade, the U.S. Defense Department’s attempts to field a light attack aircraft fit into this familiar, futile pattern. The latest iteration—Special Operations Command’s Armed Overwatch program—hopes to break this vicious cycle. 

The 76-aircraft acquisition program was forced by Congress to stop last November, despite a quick start and a $900 million procurement war chest . But with a congressionally mandated review by the Rand Corp. wrapping up and—according to multiple sources with knowledge of the program—five aircraft selected to enter a flight demonstration this summer, Armed Overwatch is now back in the Pentagon’s familiar restart mode.

  • Five aircraft types have been selected for demonstration
  • Armed, rugged versions of light reconnaissance aircraft to be acquired

Special Operations Command’s (SOCOM) goal is to avoid the final step in the traditional sequence for the Defense Department’s attempts to buy similar aircraft and actually field a new aircraft.

Possibly in SOCOM’s favor, the Armed Overwatch program has striking differences with the Light Attack and Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR) and Light Air Support (LAS) programs, the two previous failed acquisition attempts launched by Air Combat Command (ACC) in 2009-19. Following the cancellation of the LAS in 2019, the ACC transferred about $900 million to SOCOM, which launched Armed Overwatch in January 2020 on behalf of the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC).

The most obvious difference with Armed Overwatch is the kind of aircraft involved in the competition. SOCOM apparently made the selections in March but has not yet published the list. However, multiple sources with knowledge of the program have confirmed to Aviation Week the five aircraft selected to participate in the competitive flight demonstration this summer.

Only one of them—the Textron Defense AT-6 Wolverine—competed for the ACC’s failed LAAR and LAS contracts. More tellingly, the Sierra Nevada/Embraer A-29 Super Tucano did not make the list, despite being a major competitor in the ACC programs. In addition to the AT-6, the other four aircraft selected illustrate how much Armed Overwatch differs from the ACC approach to light attack. 

The list proposes a diverse array of options, including derivatives of two light airlifters, a modified crop duster, an advanced pilot trainer and a purpose-built light attack and observation platform. The single-engine AirTractor AT-802U is an armed version of the company’s sturdy crop duster. The MAG Aerospace AC-208 is the armed version of the single-engine Cessna Caravan. Leidos’ Bronco II is a U.S.-built version of the South Africa-based, twin-boom Mwari designed to operate in the African bush. And the Sierra Nevada M28 Skytruck is a newly armed version of the Polish-origin light airlifter now owned by Lockheed Martin.

The competitive field reveals the differences between the SOCOM and ACC approaches to operations. The ACC planned to operate the LAAR and LAS fleets as light versions of the Air Force’s jet-powered fighters, with trained fighter pilots in the cockpit focused primarily on attack and close air support roles.

By contrast, AFSOC prefers to operate the future Armed Overwatch fleet with the same cadre of pilots that now fly the U-28 Draco (a converted Pilatus PC-12) and the MC-12 Liberty (derived from the Beechcraft King Air 350ER). Their replacements would emphasize the “overwatch” term in the program’s title, launching munitions from wings-level flight only when necessary.

light attack aircraft over city
The U-28 was fielded to provide light reconnaissance, but it quickly acquired a role as an airborne forward air controller, guiding in air strikes by other aircraft on close air support missions. Credit: SOCOM

Whereas the ACC’s objective was to field a sort of miniature version of the Fairchild Republic A-10, SOCOM’s program intends to acquire an armed, rugged version of the U-28s and MC-12s that are now used mainly for light reconnaissance.

Such a mission did not exist in the AFSOC inventory until the U-28 fleet was assembled piecemeal off the market for used, civilian PC-12s starting in about 2006.

“Back in those early days, particularly in Afghanistan—but in Iraq also—there was just this huge demand for [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance],” says Lt. Gen. (ret.) Tom Trask, who was director of operations at AFSOC as the U-28 fleet entered the inventory.

By then, the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) RQ-1 Predator had demonstrated the value of providing overhead video. With GA-ASI’s production capacity sold out by conventional sources, SOCOM’s acquisition team turned to the used market for privately owned manned aircraft.

“That’s where the U-28 idea came from,” Trask says. “The selection of the PC-12 was simply [due to the fact that] those were the airplanes that were available, which you could get quickly.”

SOCOM sourced the PC-12s for the U-28 program from listings in aircraft trading publications. Trask recalls that some were acquired from rock stars, bankers and lawyers. “There was one that showed up in this purple paint job with gold stars on the side and purple shag carpeting on the inside,” he notes.

Meanwhile, the ACC addressed the capacity shortfall for RQ-1s and GA-ASI MQ-9s by acquiring the twin-engine MC-12s for conventional forces. Ultimately, the ACC divested its MC-12s, transferring some to the Army and others to AFSOC.

As U-28s and MC-12s deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, AFSOC quickly understood that these aircraft could perform another valuable role besides light reconnaissance. While supporting Special Operations Forces (SOF) on the ground, the U-28s and MC-12s also could serve as airborne forward air controllers, guiding in air strikes by A-10s and Boeing B-52s providing close air support.

“That was an evolution to the mission that we didn’t even envision when we were just trying to add [full-motion video] to the battlefield,” Trask says.

It is possible that the U-28 also showed AFSOC the value of adding light armament to a reconnaissance mission. SOCOM has never acknowledged arming the U-28 fleet, but the aircraft is large enough to integrate munitions that could be released from a common launch tube inserted into the fuselage. The Armed Overwatch program would allow SOCOM to take the next step with heavier munitions, including precision-guided rockets and Lockheed AGM-114 Hellfire missiles.

“I think you could probably put some minimal armament on the [U-28],” Trask says. “I think what they’re looking for is a little more, and let me tell you why. Every time there was a raid in Afghanistan and Iraq through all those years, you could always count on having almost as much conventional airpower overtop of you as you needed. As we come down in the assets in Iraq and Afghanistan . . . we can’t continue to burn the [flight] hours on all of our fighters and B-52s just doing close air support for SOF operations.”

SOCOM’s forces continue to operate as small, dispersed teams all over the world. The risk inherent in that operating posture was illustrated tragically in 2017 with an ambush in Niger that killed four American troops, whose motorized patrol lacked any support by aircraft. With Armed Overwatch, SOCOM wants to provide a rugged aircraft that can be co-located in austere locations with small SOF teams.

“We believe a critical component of our future ability to sustain cost-effective pressure on violent extremists who pose a threat to our homeland is the Armed Overwatch program,” AFSOC Commander Lt. Gen. Jim Slife said in written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 28.

The failure of the ACC’s LAS program in 2019 provided an opening for SOCOM to replace the AT-802Us and MC-12s with an aircraft that can carry a heavier load of weapons and sensors. In January 2020, SOCOM launched the Armed Overwatch program on a highly accelerated timeline, with a goal to perform flight demonstrations in November 2020, award a contract in April 2021 and complete all 76 aircraft deliveries by 2028. The Defense Department released a fiscal 2021 budget request for $100 million, including $20 million to stage the flight demonstration and $80 million to buy the first aircraft and support equipment.

But some lawmakers believed SOCOM was moving too fast. The defense committees in the House of Representatives voiced support for the Armed Overwatch program, but the Senate Armed Services Committee, which had voiced concerns about the effect of the LAS on the A-10 fleet, was more cautious. In the end, the House and Senate agreed to provide $20 million for the flight demonstration in fiscal 2021, but they eliminated funding for procurement until the Rand think tank completed an independent review of SOCOM’s acquisition strategy.

In the end, the survival of the Armed Overwatch program in Congress may again depend on whether SOCOM can define a clear rationale for why such an aircraft would not pose an existential threat to the ACC’s A-10 fleet.

“We need a new model for the aviation portion of the joint force conducting counter-violent-extremist operations,” Slife says. “We need a low-cost, reliable, rugged, multirole Armed Overwatch aircraft which can do the various roles currently performed by specialized platforms while operating in austere regions, closely.”

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.


It is a little surprising that the Marine Corps does not seem to be closely tied to the Overwatch effort. Close Air Support, especially permissive, that is on-call, or scheduled, has been a backbone of USMC aviation missions. With the Corps embedded in Special Ops and Marines deployed to support missions that might advance to major warfighting quickly, this resource seems to be an efficient and easily maintained LIC (if that term is still in vogue) tool.
All but the Bronco II have big props in the front. These props will interfere with effective placement of EO/IR/laser ball, guns, missiles, and radar in the Lynx or Osprey class, which could be the key sensor for this mission.
The MQ-1 and MQ-9 have their props in the tail for a reason. Should they be considered, possibly with shortened wings for use from close-in airstrips?
The M-345, L-39NG, L-159, and Hawk are also available already armed, and have no big props on the nose.