U.S. Special Operations Command’s armed overwatch planes eventually will replace the U-28 Draco, a small fleet of specialized and heavily used intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft, Air Force Special Operations Command boss Lt. Gen. James Slife said Feb. 12.
Under the armed overwatch program, SOCOM wants to purchase 75 off-the-shelf aircraft within about five years to fly air support for special operators. The new, low-cost aircraft will conduct a similar ISR role as well as provide strike support.
The U-28 has service life issues on the “visible fiscal horizon,” based on the number of hours it has been flying and the cycles of takeoffs and landings “because of how heavily we’ve operated those airplanes over the last 15 years or so,” Slife said.
The U-28, a modified Pilatus PC-12, was rapidly fielded in 2006 to address specific needs for ISR capability while operating from short and semi-prepared runways.
“What we’re trying to do is time this in a way that does not result in a decrease in capacity on the battlefield as we transition crews from the U-28 to the prospective armed overwatch,” he said.
The Pentagon’s fiscal 2021 budget request includes about $106 million for “armed overwatch,” and SOCOM wants to move quickly toward an acquisition program late this year for a “very rapidly fielded capability,” he said.
SOCOM needs the aircraft to provide responsive fire support “right there where they need it,” meaning it must operate with a small footprint in an austere deployed location alongside the troops it will support.
The program comes as the Air Force has effectively ended its light attack experiment following years of tests of multiple airframes at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., leading to the purchase of just four aircraft—two AT-6s for Air Combat Command and two A-29s for Air Force Special Operations Command.
Slife said the armed overwatch program will build on the data collected as part of the light attack experiment, since AFSOC was heavily involved in the evaluations. However, with the large focus on ISR, SOCOM wants to have a “broader aperture” on other types of capabilities, he said. AFSOC will still use the two A-29s it is procuring under the light attack experiment at Hurlburt Field, Fla., for its air adviser mission, training pilots and maintainers to assist partner nations that fly the aircraft. This will remain an “enduring” need, that will run alongside the SOCOM armed overwatch program, Slife said.