Air Force Special Operations Command's Armed Overwatch program will be very different from the service's failed pursuit of turboprop or armed reconnaissance jet aircraft, according to the top AFSOC commander.
Speaking to reporters during a Mitchell Institute event Tuesday, Lt. Gen. James Slife said AFSOC's goal is to look beyond aircraft with only one core mission.
"This is not a rehash of the Air Force light attack program," he said during the virtual discussion.
Slife was referring to the service's 2017 fly-off demonstrations with a handful of aircraft to test whether lighter, less expensive and off-the-shelf aircraft might be usable in combat zones such as Afghanistan.
Instead, Armed Overwatch will bring together flexible aircraft "capable of operating with a very light logistics footprint in small disaggregated teams ... in very austere regions" to keep the pressure on violent extremist organizations, Slife said. He gave the example of extremist groups that pose threats in regions of Africa, where the airspace remains largely uncontested.
The command is planning flight demonstrations later this year for aircraft capable of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions and of close-air support and precision strike in support of ground troops, he said.
"I think SOCOM [Special Operations Command] envisions this as more of a multirole platform that can perform level delivery of precision munitions," he said. "The first step really is getting to a flying demonstration, which we anticipate is going to take place in the coming months."
Last year, SOCOM announced a new contract solicitation to eventually buy 75 manned aircraft for Armed Overwatch for special operations missions. Air Force Magazine reported that Textron Aviation, Air Tractor, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Leidos are interested in the effort.
The command asked for more than $100 million in its fiscal 2021 budget request to buy the first five aircraft, but lawmakers made cuts to the program in the final bill. Slife said there is "some" money still devoted to the research and development phase, including the upcoming demo.
"I don't anticipate that we'll get into aircraft procurement until [fiscal] 2022 at the earliest," he said. "Ultimately, I believe that SOCOM will be able to demonstrate to the Congress that this is a viable program and [that] it's required for the future operating environment."
AFSOC plans to withdraw its manned intelligence-gathering U-28A Draco aircraft from the field as it brings on Armed Overwatch aircraft. The U-28 -- a small, repurposed Pilatus PC-12 aircraft used for ISR -- falls under nonstandard aviation, often landing in tiny, semi-prepared airfields and flying in remote areas of the world.
"At the end of the day, the Armed Overwatch platform will be less expensive to operate, [and] it will be more versatile than the U-28," Slife said.
A 2019 Center for Strategic and International Studies report, "The Air Force of the Future: A Comparison of Alternative Force Structures," confirms that small fleets like the Draco, which has 28 aircraft in its inventory, are costly to operate.
Because the costs of staffing and equipping the force have increased over time, the service has had to budget more money toward some efforts just to keep them going, including small fleet aircraft, according to the CSIS report. Typically, the cost per plane goes down with larger fleet aircraft because manning and maintenance can be shared. By comparison, it takes specialized equipment, maintenance and training to sustain small fleets, taking airmen away from bigger missions, the report states.
SOCOM is looking for a robust platform that is "survivable enough to operate in the environment that we anticipate it operating in," Slife said. That doesn't include expensive fighter jets that require ejection seats to bail out should the aircraft go down within enemy territory.
The aircraft must be able to "provide the intelligence needed to remain aware of the threat and to take action where necessary and has a kinetic capability to take action when necessary without drawing a lot of attention to our host nations that may be hosting those operations," he said.
"That is what the future looks like, in my mind," Slife said.