Special Operations Command Eyes Four Squadrons of Armed Overwatch Aircraft

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The Sierra Nevada MC-145B Wily Coyote, which is similar to the Air Force’s C-145 Combat Coyote pictured here, is one of five candidates for the Armed Overwatch program. (Senior Airman Blake Wiles/U.S. Air Force)

U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) wants to have four squadrons of its in-development Armed Overwatch aircraft that could be sent to austere environments where terrorists and other violent groups operate.

In a Wednesday budget hearing with the House Armed Services subcommittee on intelligence and special operations, SOCOM commander Gen. Richard Clarke said each squadron would be made up of 15 aircraft, and he expects one of those operational squadrons would be deployed at any given time. The other three squadrons would be at home for training, maintenance and recovery to prepare for their next deployment.

Clarke also is eyeing a fifth squadron of 10 to 15 Armed Overwatch aircraft for training purposes, bringing the program to between 70 and 75 aircraft total.

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Headed by Air Force Special Operations Command, Armed Overwatch is a program to develop flexible, fixed-wing aircraft that require minimal logistical support. 

AFSOC commander Lt. Gen. Jim Slife told reporters earlier this year that Armed Overwatch planes could conduct not only intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, but also close air support and precision strike missions to assist ground troops.

Armed Overwatch will be a key element of SOCOM’s efforts to improve its intelligence and surveillance capabilities, Clarke said Wednesday. Other improvements include better ways to manage the data special operators use to quickly track who and what might be on the battlefields where they fight.

SOCOM needs Armed Overwatch to retire the costly and aging U-28A Draco aircraft, which was adapted from the Pilatus PC-12 and is capable of landing in small, rough airfields and flying in remote areas. However, because there are so few Dracos and they are not standard production aircraft having been modified for their role, they need specialized equipment, maintenance and training to maintain them, taking airmen away from bigger missions and driving up costs.

Clarke said Wednesday that the Draco, which was first deployed in 2006, is nearing the end of its life cycle and would need re-winging, or installing new wings to replace worn-out pairs to extend an aircraft’s life span, to keep in the air. The cost of re-winging the Dracos would be nearly the same price as bringing on the fleet of new Armed Overwatch planes, he said. He did not say how much re-winging Draco aircraft would cost.

“We see Armed Overwatch as a very cost-effective approach to support our SOF teams in the future,” Clarke said.

The military is now in the process of shifting its attention towards preparing for a potential conflict with a major adversary such as China or Russia and away from two decades of primarily fighting violent extremist groups. However, the military expects it will need to keep tracking and pressuring violent extremists, and SOCOM hopes Armed Overwatch would help. Armed Overwatch missions primarily would happen in places like Africa, where groups like al-Shabaab operate, but the airspace is largely uncontested.

Clarke told lawmakers that Armed Overwatch also could be used in places around the world like the Philippines, Thailand, or South America – “wherever we need ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] overhead for our troops.”

Clarke stressed that it would be a multi-role aircraft that would not always be armed.

SOCOM announced in May that it had awarded $19.2 million in contracts to five companies to produce prototype aircraft for evaluation for this program. These prototype evaluations mostly will take place at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and are expected to be finished by next March.

The aircraft being considered for the Armed Overwatch program are Leidos Inc.’s Bronco II, MAG Aerospace’s MC-208 Guardian, Textron Aviation Defense’s AT-6E Wolverine, L-3 Communications Integrated Systems’ AT-802U Sky Warden, and Sierra Nevada Corp.’s MC-145B Wily Coyote.

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at stephen.losey@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

Related: These Are the 5 Planes Vying to Be AFSOC's New Armed Overwatch Aircraft

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