The Air Force’s light attack aircraft experiment may have ended with only a handful of platforms on contract, but off-the-shelf providers have a second chance to pitch their systems to Special Operations Command (SOCOM).
The Defense Department’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposal included $106 million for SOCOM’s armed overwatch program, to provide the component command with armed reconnaissance, strike coordination and reconnaissance, and airborne forward air control in the counter-violent extremism fight, per budget documents. The program will be a three-phased competition culminating in a live-fly demonstration in November, and the command has so far been encouraged by the industry response to the program, SOCOM’s acquisition executive James Smith said in a May 13 media teleconference.
“There are sufficient vendors out there that have a product that they can offer that we’ll be able to put into production in fairly short order,” he said during National Defense Industrial Association’s weeklong “vSOFIC” conference, a virtual version of the association’s annual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference that usually takes place in Tampa, Florida.
Competitors have already submitted initial proposals, Smith said. SOCOM plans to examine the offerings ahead of a potential downselect to the demonstration phase in November. The command could award up to four contracts of $4 million ahead of a tentative production contract. SOCOM could ultimately procure up to 75 aircraft between the next five to seven years.
“At the speed that we’re moving on this acquisition, we don’t anticipate at the top of the demo that the vendors will have been able to complete weapons integration, communications integration, [or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] integration,” Smith said. “They’ll bring to that demonstration their version of comms gear that will achieve the connectivity that we’re looking for.”
Several companies that had previously participated in the Air Force’s light attack experiment are now hitching their wagons to SOCOM. An Embraer–Sierra 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 confirmed May 12 that it is participating in SOCOM’s armed overwatch program with the AT-6, while Air Force Magazine reported that Air Tractor will also be participating. Leidos [LDOS] said May 4 that it plans to offer the Bronco II, a newly built, multi-mission aircraft, as a team with Paramount Group USA and Vertex Aerospace.
Smith noted that while all of the submissions so far are for manned aircraft, unmanned systems would also be considered — although they may be more expensive to operate than SOCOM is seeking.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have previously expressed skepticism and criticism over the way the Air Force handled the light attack experiment, and appropriators called for SOCOM to take over the process during the markup of the FY ’20 National Defense Authorization Act (Defense Daily, Nov. 25, 2019).