As the competitors in U.S. Special Operations Command’s (SOCOM) Armed Overwatch program await a contract award by next June, the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act holds up the disbursement of fiscal 2022 procurement funding until SOCOM submits an acquistion roadmap.

In addition to that language in Section 144 of the act, legislators directed the Pentagon’s office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) “to review SOCOM’s Armed Overwatch program and submit an independent assessment to the congressional defense committees at the same time as the submission of the President’s budget request for fiscal year 2023.”

“At a minimum, the independent assessment shall evaluate the total number of Armed Overwatch aircraft necessary to fulfill the requirements of special operations forces in light of changes to global force posture and increasing threats to manned aircraft since the requirement for such aircraft was validated by the commander, SOCOM,” according to language in a joint explanatory statement on the NDAA.

A source said on Dec. 16 that the budget submission process for fiscal 2023 is behind schedule and that the fiscal 2023 budget release may stretch beyond next February.

Congressional defense authorizers provided $166 million of SOCOM’s $170 million procurement request for six Armed Overwatch aircraft in fiscal 2022–a reduction of $4 million due to what the authorizers termed “unit cost growth.” The Senate’s version of the fiscal 2022 defense appropriations bill recommends $149 million for the six aircraft, the House’s version $166 million.

Designs by five teams are competing for the program: a Leidos [LDOS] team’s Bronco II, L3Harris Technologies’ [LHX] AT-802U Sky Warden, MAG Aerospace’s MC-208 Guardian, Sierra Nevada Corp.’s and PZL Mielec‘s [LMT] MC-145B Wily Coyote and Textron’s [TXT] AT-6E Wolverine.

SOCOM desires 75 Armed Overwatch aircraft–four squadrons, plus 15 training planes.

The fiscal 2021 NDAA said that SOCOM did not have validated requirements for Armed Overwatch and prohibited SOCOM from buying any Armed Overwatch aircraft in fiscal 2021. The fiscal 2021 NDAA also prohibited the U.S. Air Force from buying any between fiscal 2021 and 2023.

In addition, the law required Army Gen. Richard Clarke, the commander of SOCOM, “to provide a comprehensive requirements plan and roadmap analyzing application of the armed overwatch capability against the totality of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance requirements of the various special operations forces units and missions, and the geographic combatant commands.”

Under Armed Overwatch, SOCOM aims to find a near-production ready small attack aircraft capable of providing commanders with armed reconnaissance, strike coordination and reconnaissance, and airborne forward air control “in austere and permissive environments for the Countering-Violent Extremist Organizations” mission.

SOCOM also is interested in exploring manned-unmanned teaming with Armed Overwatch aircraft and their ability to employ new Air Launched Effects.

While the Air Force ended its low-cost attack aircraft program in 2019, SOCOM adapted the Air Force effort for the command’s Armed Overwatch program.

In August, Air Force Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, the service’s deputy chief of staff for operations, said that buying Armed Overwatch propeller aircraft is not a priority for the service, as they will not be of use in a conflict with China or Russia (Defense Daily, Aug. 11).