US SOCOM has big plans for armed Overwatch strike aircraft

  • The United States Special Operations Command is looking for its own light aircraft to support operators on the ground.
  • Congress and the Air Force remain suspicious, but SOCOM has moved ahead, reducing the competition to five potential aircraft.

In recent years, a low-intensity conflict has raged inside the Pentagon over how US special operations forces will counter terrorist and extremist organizations in an era of great power competition against China and Russia.

At the heart of the debate is the willingness of the US Special Operations Command to have its own small special operations aircraft to support its units. Commandos want their own inexpensive aircraft and not have to depend on fighter jets, such as the F-22 or F-35, which cost between $ 30,000 and $ 70,000 an hour to operate.

SOCOM wants a “versatile capability that could provide both intelligence, surveillance and overhead reconnaissance, but also ready to fire ammunition in support of a potentially endangered team. SOCOM Commanding General General Richard Clarke told lawmakers. during 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 was chasing its own light attack aircraft, and Congress, who want to make sure it doesn’t end up. fund two similar programs.

Despite these hurdles, SOCOM progressed and the competition reached its final stage with five aircraft battling to become the next special operations aircraft.

A special operations aircraft

Beechcraft AT-6 light attack experience

An AT-6 aircraft during the US Air Force Light Attack Experiment at Holloman Air Force Base.

U.S. Air Force photo by Ethan D. Wagner

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 gunships and the Army’s AH-64 Apache helicopter are not part of the competition, but they are popular with the troops. , so an Armed Overwatch competitor that could provide similar abilities would likely have an edge.

Each aircraft has its strengths and weaknesses, and while it will be up to SOCOM to determine which one is best suited to the mission, special ground operators want three things: lounging time; a powerful and diverse arsenal; and strong intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

A good lounging time will ensure that the aircraft can stay on target for long periods of time and constantly support the ground crew. With plans to purchase a limited number of aircraft, SOCOM must get the most out of each one.

Additionally, a powerful and diverse arsenal – such as effective cannons for strafing as well as rockets, bombs, and missiles – is a must, as the aircraft will operate away from large conventional units that can bolster it, as was the case. case in Afghanistan. , Iraq and Syria.

A U-28 Draco assigned to the Air Force Special Operations Command

The U-28 Draco has been used extensively in recent years, providing ISR capabilities to special operations units in the field.

US Air Force / Senior Airman Mahoney

Finally, the aircraft will need sensors capable of providing intelligence to troops on the ground and commanders well behind the front lines.

“The sensors are not discussed enough, but the possibility of having a platform with advanced sensors capable of alerting a team of anything out of place or of a threat before it does. approach is invaluable, ”a former Air Force combat controller told Insider.

The desire for SRI capabilities is not accidental.

The MQ-9 and other unmanned aircraft that can provide close air support, precision strike, and ISR capabilities are among the assets most in demand by U.S. military commanders.

During Operation Inherent Resolve, the fight against terrorism against ISIS, the demand for these unmanned aircraft was so high that there was just weren’t enough of them to meet him.

“I think the ISR planes, the MQ-9 for example, which had a lighter weapons load were more useful [in Iraq and Syria] because the bad guys knew not to congregate in open areas and be an easy target for air attacks. Instead, they did more devious stuff, like plant IEDs, ”said the former combat controller, who was responsible for coordinating air support for troops on the ground.

MQ-9 mower

An MQ-9 mower.

Ethan Miller / Getty Images

“We didn’t always need quick movers [fighter jets] above our heads, and if there was one, let’s say we entered into an exchange of fire, more formidable planes would arrive very quickly on the target, ”added the former combat controller, speaking anonymously for discuss operations.

However, in the future, special operations troops in more remote areas where there are terrorist threats like Africa will not be able to count on the rapid arrival of more formidable planes.

“It’s really a policy [issue] whether or not fires are needed. It’s politics and it’s the conditions on the ground that might dictate whether or not you need fires, so it’s a multi-role platform, ”Clarke told lawmakers on the requirements for Armed aircraft. Overwatch.

In addition to these three main capabilities, the new aircraft should be able to operate in austere environments with little maintenance.

An ability to repeatedly land and take off from dirt runways in Africa or impromptu airfields in Southeast Asia will be as important as efficiency over the target – if the aircraft cannot fly, no matter what else he can do.

Counterterrorism in the Age of National Competition

US Air Force Special Tactics Operators

US Air Force Special Tactics Operators during an exercise at an airfield in Michigan, May 24, 2021.

US Air Force / Tech. Sgt. Sandra Welch

SOCOM plans to purchase a total of 60 to 75 planes: four squadrons of 15 planes each, with another 10 to 15 planes in reserve for training and support. One squadron will be deployed up front while the rest will go through maintenance and training.

Historically, the United States has been engaged in low intensity and counterinsurgency conflict at least once every ten years since the end of World War II.

Special operations forces have also become the go-to choice for US policymakers in almost every eventuality since the 9/11 attacks, as they can carry out valuable missions with relatively little political or military exposure.

Terrorist and extremist organizations will remain active as the US military refocuses its main conventional units on more urgent threats. So it’s safe to assume that SOCOM’s Armed Overwatch plane will see more action supporting U.S. special operations units and their partners than the plane’s fifth-generation combat cousins.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a veteran of the Hellenic Army (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ) and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.

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