Earlier this week, U.S. Special Operations Command chose the winner of the Armed Overwatch competition. The AT-802U Sky Warden, manufactured jointly by L3Harris Technologies and Air Tractor, was awarded an initial contract of $170 million for 75 aircraft. These will provide close air support and precision strike capabilities, as well as carry out armed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions for counterterrorism operations in austere environments.
The indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract could be worth up to $3 billion, L3Harris said in a press release earlier last week. The Sky Warden is expected to replace the aging U-28 Draco fleet.
“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 Army Gen. Richard Clarke said. “This rugged, sustainable platform will operate in permissive environments and austere conditions around the world to safeguard our Special Operations Forces on the ground.”
SOCOM expects that Sky Warden will reach initial operating capability in fiscal year 2026, with full operating capability following in 2029.
Air Tractor will produce the cropduster aircraft at its Olney, Texas, manufacturing facility. It will then be sent to L3Harris’s facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for the Armed Overwatch configuration.
Why Armed Overwatch Is Needed
The U.S. military is changing its focus from 9/11-era counterterrorism missions to great power competition against adversaries such as China and Russia. Small, lightly armored aircraft like these will be easy pickings in a theater with contested airspace.
But in permissible air space, the need for such aircraft remains very high. And counterterror operations will continue in many areas of the world –- most notably in austere locations such as Somalia, in the fight against al-Shabaab terrorists, but also in the fight against al-Qaeda and ISIS across different parts of the Middle East.
SOCOM special operators will continue to need airframes for close air support. These have been invaluable to protect American and partner nation troops, and they have also taken out high-value terrorist targets.
Just as important, the special operations community needs an airframe to collect intelligence to aid the decisions of commanders on the ground. Existing aircraft can perform each operation individually, but SOCOM is looking for a dedicated aircraft able to do it all.
The most common request by special operators is for an MQ-9 Reaper, but there are not enough of those to go around to the major commands. With the focus on great power competition, they will become less available to SOF troops.
With special operations forces operating in smaller bases with a much smaller support footprint, the Sky Warden will provide a much more cost-effective platform that can be assembled and disassembled in about seven hours.
It will be able to take off and land at smaller airfields, closer to the troops it will support. It can also loiter for longer periods and configure its payload to match mission requirements – the Sky Warden will carry 6,000 pounds of ordnance.
Addressing congressional lawmakers earlier this year, Air Force Special Operations Commander Lt. Gen. James Slife said, “I think we can do [the Armed Overwatch 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.
“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.”
Slife continued: “The idea of the Armed Overwatch platform is [that] it’s a modular capability, and so you can outfit the aircraft with a robust suite of sensors that will exceed what is available with most dedicated ISR platforms today. Or you can outfit the platform with a robust suite of precision munitions. It really depends on the mission, and so clearly, the Armed Overwatch platform is not a panacea for every tactical situation that a ground force might find themselves in.”
L3Harris listened to SOF operators and designed this aircraft from the bottom up, meeting the needs of troops on the ground. Indeed, comments from Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and AFSOC operators reveal a very similar set of needs from this type of aircraft.