SOCOM is eyeing a fleet of light attack aircraft for 'armed overwatch'

Military Tech
A Embraer EMB 314 Super Tucano A-29 experimental aircraft flies over White Sands Missile Range. The A-29 participated in the U.S. Air Force Light Attack Experiment (OA-X), a series of trials to determine the feasibility of using light aircraft in attack roles, starting in 2017(U.S. Air Force/Ethan D. Wagner)

U.S. Special Operations Command is looking to pick up 75 light attack aircraft to conduct "armed overwatch" missions in conjunction with ground forces, according to new solicitation.


SOCOM plans on holding several industry days with defense contractors in March for the new Armed Overwatch program which is intended to provide U.S. special operations forces with "deployable and sustainable manned aircraft systems" for "close air support, precision strike, and SOF intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in austere and permissive environments," according to the Feb. 3 solicitation.

Based on the outcome of those industry days, SOCOM intends to then award a follow-on indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contract to furnish the command with an expected total of 75 light attack aircraft over a five-year base ordering period, according to the solicitation.

The Air Force had previously explored acquiring new light attack aircraft alongside the Navy and Marine Corps since 2017 through its experimental OA-X, or "Observation, Attack, concept," program designed to identify light attack aircraft for non-traditional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) functions.

SOCOM has been eyeing its own light attack aircraft since at least 2017, according to The War Zone.

The new SOCOM solicitation comes several months after the Air Force announced plans in October to purchase two new light attack aircraft, the Textron Aviation's AT-6 Wolverine and Sierra Nevada Corporation/Embraer Defense & Security's A-29 Super Tucano, which the service evaluated as part of its OA-X experiment.

But those aircraft likely won't see combat: the AT-6s are intended for the "continued testing and development of operational tactics and standards for exportable, tactical networks that improve interoperability with international partners," according to the Air Force statement, while the A-29s will be used to "develop an instructor pilot program for the Combat Aviation Advisory mission, to meet increased partner nation requests for light attack assistance."

The armed overwatch focus on precision strike and close air support functions marks a departure from the ISR and training focuses of the Air Force's OA-X experiment, which were partially intended to free up other aircraft like the A-10 Thunderbolt II and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter for more complex combat operations.

Indeed, Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper hinted one month after the AT-6 and A-29 announcement that the service could see its light attack efforts split into two distinct efforts: one focused on the procurement of additional AT-6 and A-29 airframes, and another that emphasizes a new platform to fulfill a need for the specific combat functions that SOCOM's been pursuing for years.

"Special operations forces have been particularly vocal about the need for armed overwatch, which is currently provided by platforms like the MQ-9 Reaper and the AC-130J gunship," as Air Force Magazine reported at the time. "Roper said more experiments could be an ideal way to explore those possibilities."


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