Tech & Tactics Aircraft

Here comes Sky Warden, the crop duster that’s SOCOM’s newest armed overwatch aircraft

U.S. special operations forces have a new eye in the sky to rely on.
Jared Keller Avatar
AT-802U Sky Warden armed overwatch
The AT-802U Sky Warden. (L3Harris/Air Tractor)

After years in the making, U.S. Special Operations Command’s dream of a fleet of brand new multi-role “armed overwatch” aircraft is about to become a reality. 

Defense contractors L3Harris and Air Tractor, which won a $3 billion contract to produce the aircraft last August, have officially entered low-rate initial production of their single-engine turboprop AT-802U Sky Warden light attack aircraft for SOCOM, Flight Global reports.

Speaking at the Special Operations Forces Week conference in Tampa, Florida this week, SOCOM acquisition executive Jim Smith confirmed that production run, stating that the command was “very pleased with the progress,” per Flight Global’s reporting from the conference.

SOCOM’s Armed Overwatch program calls for a total fleet of 75 aircraft, and the command has been eyeing its own fleet of light-attack aircraft since at least 2017, as our colleagues at The War Zone previously reported

The aircraft is intended to provide U.S. special operations forces with “crewed deployable, affordable, and sustainable aircraft systems capable of executing Close Air Support (CAS), precision strike, and armed [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] requirements in austere and permissive environments for use in irregular warfare operations,” according to the command’s fiscal year 2024 budget request. 

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Billed as the largest single-engine turboprop aircraft in the world, the original Air Tractor AT-802 aircraft on which the Sky Warden is based first flew in the 1990s as a crop duster. Its rugged airframe and relatively large payload capacity made it ideal for counter-narcotics missions in South America that required aircraft to operate on unimproved airstrips and dirt roads.  

“Years of coca crop eradication missions in South America resulted in the development of lightweight composite ballistic armor for the AT-802U cockpit ‘bathtub’ and engine compartment,” notes Air Tractor.

The Sky Warden variant that SOCOM is procuring has a payload capacity of 8,000 pounds with ballistic armor, according to Air Tractor. The aircraft can loiter on station for six hours with a 200 nautical mile combat radius, per L3Harris, and features 10 external hardpoints: eight wing hard points for 600-pound bombs, and two centerline hard points for 1,000-pound bombs. The innermost wing station is “optimized” for firearms from .50 caliber to 20mm. 

Designated the OA-1K, the adoption of the Sky Warden is intended to replace its small fleet of U-28A Draco ISR aircraft in SOCOM’s inventory, Air Force officials previously announced

The long-term goal of the program, apart from finally fielding a light attack aircraft, but to eliminate the “stack” of multiple single-role specialized ISR and close air support aircraft that are often called in to support U.S. special operations forces in austere environments, Air Force Special Operations Command chief Lt. Gen. James C. Slife previously told Congress last April.

“You’ll typically have single-role specialized platforms — AC-130s, A-10s, MQ-9s, U-28s — you have a stack of airplanes over an objective, each platform providing a niche capability to the force on the ground,” Slife said at the time. “That averages, in terms of cost per flying hour, over $150,000 an hour […] to generate kind of the typical stack for that.”

“The idea of the Armed Overwatch platform is [that] it’s a modular capability and so you can outfit the aircraft with a robust suite of sensors that will exceed what is available with most dedicated ISR platform,” he continued.“For what we envision the enduring counter-[violent extremist organization] mission looking like, we think it’s a prudent investment.”

While the low-rate initial production decision is a big step forward for the Sky Warden, the aircraft isn’t necessarily ready for prime-time just yet: Speaking at the SOF Week conference in Tampa, SOCOM’s Smith stated that the command had decided to delay full-rate production of the aircraft by three months to address new training and system requirements, Flight Global reports.

“This will be the first tail dragger aircraft in the Air Force inventory in many years,” Smith said, referencing the configuration of the Sky Warden’s landing gear compared to other Air Force aircraft. “We want to make sure we’ve added time in the schedule for our operators, our pilots to work with the technology.” 

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