Armed Overwatch Buyer Clarifies Unique Mission

Credit: U.S. Air Force/Samuel King, Jr.

ORLANDO, Florida—U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has proposed to revive a former U.S. Air Force requirement for a light attack aircraft fleet in the fiscal 2021 budget request, but that does not mean a traditional fighter is on the shopping list, the chief of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) said Feb. 28. 

The Pentagon’s new five-year spending plan includes a more than $800 million line item to buy 76 “Armed Overwatch” aircraft over a five- to seven-year period.

SOCOM selected the Armed Overwatch moniker for the program deliberately to establish a clear break from the conventional Air Force’s Light Attack Aircraft requirement, Lt. Gen. Jim Slife told reporters at the Air Warfare Symposium here. The reference to “Attack” in the Air Force program suggested a fighter-like capability, like an A-10.  

The distinction is meaningful as SOCOM browses for aircraft among suppliers of modified, tail-dragging crop dusters; converted, turboprop-powered trainers and a mix of old and new light jet designs. 

Whereas the conventional Air Force performs the close air support (CAS) mission with highly maneuverable attack or fighter jets, SOCOM is open to aircraft that deliver weapons while flying straight and level, like a bomber or an MQ-9 unmanned aircraft system, Slife said. 

“It doesn’t have to be a fighter to provide that kind of fire, and so we don’t necessarily view the Armed Overwatch platform as a CAS airplane,” Slife said. “We view it as an airplane that will employ CAS procedures.”

Asked if SOCOM would specify an ejection seat as a requirement, Slife declined to provide a straight answer, saying the emergency egress system might or might not be necessary. The conventional Air Force specified an ejection seat for the canceled Light Attack Aircraft program, which ruled out Air Tractor’s AT-802U Longsword and the Thrush 601-derived Iomax Archangel. 

SOCOM also does not consider it necessary to employ pilots trained by the Air Force specifically to fly fighters, Slife said. The internal occupation code for fighter pilots is “11F,” but SOCOM-trained pilots are designated 11S and are trained to fly aircraft such as AC-130s and the U-28 surveillance aircraft.

“My intent would be to not exacerbate the Air Force’s fighter pilot shortage,” Slife said. “I’m open to it, but I don’t want to create an additional demand signal that the Air Force would have to fill.”