While U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) desires 75 Armed Overwatch aircraft–four squadrons, plus 15 training planes, a top U.S. Air Force official on Aug. 11 countered that such aircraft will not be of much use in conflicts with China or Russia.
“The  National Defense Strategy is pretty clear. We need to focus on a peer threat,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, the service’s deputy chief of staff for operations, told an Air Force Association Warfighters in Action forum. “My question is, ‘What good is a propeller aircraft going to do in the South China Sea? What’s the deterrent value of a large, 1990s-designed ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] force that’s very ineffective against anything that can threaten it? How is that going to prevail in a peer environment?'”
In a fiscally constrained environment, the Air Force “is forced to make some tough decisions to move to a force structure that will defend our nation against the gravest threats,” Guastella said. “I think though that there will be a volume of force structure that can still address the threats of counterterrorism, of the special ops community, but just not in the same volume of the capacity we have today.”
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 two years ago, SOCOM adapted it for the command’s Armed Overwatch program.
Last year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) said that SOCOM did not have validated requirements for Armed Overwatch and prohibited SOCOM from buying any Armed Overwatch aircraft this fiscal year. The fiscal 2021 NDAA also prohibits the Air Force from buying any between fiscal 2021 and 2023.
In addition, the law requires 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.”
At the AFA Warfighters in Action forum on Aug. 11, Lt. Gen. Chance Saltzman, the U.S. Space Force deputy chief of staff for operations, cyber and nuclear, said that such a roadmap should not “lock down” a particular option or platform, but instead allow the integration of new techologies.
One such technology that may prove of benefit to SOCOM in this regard is the space-based ground moving target indicator radar under development by the Space Force to replace the Northrop Grumman [NOC] Joint STARS aircraft.
George Nicholson, the Washington, D.C., liaison for the Global Special Operations Forces (SOF) Foundation, said that Gen. Clarke told him that Clarke and USSF Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond have discussed how space tactical ISR can benefit SOCOM.
Retired Army Col. Stu Bradin, the president of the Global SOF Foundation, wrote in an Aug. 11 email that moving ISR to space “should be one of the highest priorities and it would be for the GCCs [Geographic Combatant Commands], and not just the intelligence community.”
“I would love to see how the ISR that is on hand supports the GCC Commanders’ Critical Information Requirements (CCIR),” Bradin wrote. “The space based ISR will drastically change the way we do operations.”
Bradin partially disputed Guastella’s contentions and said that the Air Force has heavily used its U-28A Draco aircraft–modified Pilatus PC-12s–and the MC-12W Liberty planes by L3Harris Technologies [LHX] for SOF ISR missions.
“I don’t understand the response about fixed wing aircraft not surviving a high threat environment,” per Bradin’s email. “RAND has done several studies on this subject, and only the 5th Generation fighters do well, and all others are equally vulnerable to those high end threats. We built a lot of major weapon systems for the Cold War and we did not really use them against the Soviets or red Chinese. We did fight a lot of other conflicts all around the world where the threats varied.”
“SOF will be used in high threat areas, but it will do a lot of work in conflict regions that do not have high-end threats,” Bradin wrote. “I do know that SOF will be deployed (is deployed) in a lot of different environments, and the U-28 and the MC-12 have been flown into the ground with thousands of combat hours. I would love to see the intelligence that says that the missions will decrease.”
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 MC-145B Wily Coyote and Textron’s [TXT] AT-6E Wolverine.