The new armed overwatch asset will replace the U-28 Draco to perform ISR and CAS in uncontested environments and austere conditions.
The U.S. Special Operations Command announced on Aug. 1, 2022, the selection of the AT-802U Sky Warden as the winner of the Armed Overwatch program, beating competitors like the AT-6E Wolverine and the MC-145B Wily Coyote. The indefinite quantity, indefinite delivery contract awarded to L3Harris Technologies and Air Tractor includes the delivery of up to 75 aircraft, with an initial award of 170 million USD and a total potential value of up to 3 billion USD.
The aircraft is the militarized variant of the well-known Air Tractor AT-802, commonly used as agricultural aircraft and as firefighting aircraft (aka the AT-802 Fire Boss). Among the heavy modifications of this variant, which is already in service in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, are sensors, communications equipment and weapons systems. SOCOM expects an initial operating capability in 2026, with full operating capability following in 2029.
L3Harris says Sky Warden’s name commemorates two best-in-class, multi-mission special operations combat platforms, merging the deep history of the Vietnam era A-1E Sky Raider with the present-day U-28, which uses the callsign “Warden” during combat operations. Sky Warden combines their heritage and capabilities to collapse the stack, providing one aircraft capable of multiple mission roles.
Built on the rugged, reliable Air Tractor AT-802U platform, the company says that thanks to the STOL capability and small support footprint, aircrews will be able to co-locate with the disaggregated ground units they support. Speaking of support, the multi-mission aircraft features, according to the company, great persistence and payload, with a 6-hour loiter at 200 nm combat radius and a 6,000 lb flexible combat load-out.
The fleet of modern multi-mission aircraft will address SOCOM’s need for a deployable, sustainable single-engine fixed-wing, crewed and affordable aircraft system. It will provide close air support, precision strike, armed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), strike coordination and forward air controller requirements for use in austere and permissive environments. The aircraft will be also used in irregular warfare operations.
“Armed Overwatch answers a critical need for U.S. Special Operations Command to conduct a wide range of operations globally in support of the National Defense Strategy,” SOCOM Commander Gen. Richard Clarke said in a release. “This rugged, sustainable platform will operate in permissive environments and austere conditions around the world to safeguard our special operations forces on the ground.”
Gen. Clarke told lawmakers last year he envisions four operational squadrons of 15 Armed Overwatch aircraft with one deployed at any given time while the other three train, recover and are maintained at home, and a fifth squadron dedicated to training. This will allow the Air Force to shift its more complex and expensive-to-operate fighter jets from operations in permissive environment like the Middle East.
L3Harris said in the press release that expects to rapidly modify the AT-802U demonstrator into the production configuration and provide for customer weapon system testing in approximately six months. The production of new, fully modified, Armed Overwatch mission-configured aircraft will finally begin in 2023. Air Tractor will build the base aircraft at its facilities in Olney, Texas, while L3Harris will modify them to the final configuration at its facilities in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Six new aircraft will be delivered under the low-rate initial production Lot 1.
“I think we can do [the program] at relatively low risk based on what we’ve seen from the vendors who have indicated that they intend to bring platforms to demonstrate for us in the coming months,” AFSOC commander Lt. Gen. James Slife said earlier this year. “The whole reason we’re doing this is because the National Defense Strategy talks about the need to do cost-effective [counter-violent extremist organization] operations, cost-effective irregular warfare.”
Even if the Armed Overwatch aims to replace the U-28 Draco, is seems that even after the Sky Warden is delivered, SOCOM might still need the U-28 to provide ISR for some type of operations like search and rescue and humanitarian relief.