U.S. Special Operations Command’s (SOCOM) research and development into the “Armed Overwatch” program continues in expectation of a flight test this year and a procurement request in the upcoming fiscal 2022 budget, Air Force Lt. Gen. James Slife, the commander of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), said on Feb. 16.

Congressional appropriators cut $80 million from SOCOM’s $101 million request for the “Armed Overwatch” program in fiscal 2021. SOCOM had planned to buy five aircraft this fiscal year, but now will have to wait at least until next year.

Congress said that $60 million of that $80 million cut was “excess to need,” and transferred the remaining $20 million of the cut to Armed Overwatch research and development under the $251 million provided by Congress for SOCOM Aviation Systems Advanced Development.

Research and development, testing and evaluation (RDT&E) funds provided by Congress this fiscal year will help SOCOM “conduct a flying demonstration of commercially available platforms that might meet our requirements and inform our final requirement document before we go to a procurement decision,” Slife told a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies’ Aerospace Nation virtual forum.

“There is some procurement money in FY ’21, but I don’t anticipate that we would get into aircraft procurement until FY ’22 at the earliest,” he said. “We enjoy congressional support. Clearly, there is some oversight concern in some committees about what is it we envision this Armed Overwatch platform doing and what is the problem that we’re trying to solve.”

In 2019, congressional appropriators criticized the U.S. Air Force’s handling of the light attack experiment and called for SOCOM to build requirements for such systems during the markup of the FY ’20 National Defense Authorization Act–a transition that led to SOCOM’s Armed Overwatch program.

Slife said that Armed Overwatch would save significant costs in providing improved surveillance in long-term counter violent extremism operations.

The Armed Overwatch program is to provide commanders with armed reconnaissance, strike coordination and reconnaissance, and airborne forward air control in the counter-violent extremism fight.

SOCOM had planned for the program to be a three-phased competition culminating in a live-fly demonstration in November, and SOCOM said last May that industry has had strong interest in the program.

SOCOM has said it could procure up to 75 aircraft in the coming decade.

A number of companies that participated in the Air Force’s light attack experiment are interested in Armed Overwatch. An EmbraerSierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) team, Textron Defense [TXT], and an Air Tractor-L3 Technologies [LHX] team pitched four aircraft among the three groups to participate in live demonstrations with the Air Force in 2017. In 2019, the Air Force opted to procure two to three SNC-Embraer A-29 Super Tucano aircraft and Textron AT-6 Wolverine turboprops each.

Textron has said that it is participating in SOCOM’s Armed Overwatch program with the AT-6, while Leidos [LDOS] has said that it is teamed with Paramount Group USA and Vertex Aerospace to offer the multi-mission Bronco II.

SOCOM said that while companies have offered manned aircraft, unmanned systems would also be considered — although they may be more expensive to operate than what SOCOM is seeking.