U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, announced Friday it has awarded contracts totaling $19.2 million to five companies to produce prototype aircraft for its Armed Overwatch program.
In a notice published on the U.S. federal contracting website, SOCOM said that the awards will go to Leidos Inc. of Reston, Virginia; MAG Aerospace of Fairfax, Virginia; Textron Aviation Defense of Wichita, Kansas; L-3 Communications Integrated Systems of Waco, Texas; and Sierra Nevada Corp. of Sparks, Nevada.
The Armed Overwatch program is Air Force Special Operations Command's effort to field a series of flexible, fixed-wing aircraft that could be deployed to austere regions and require only a light logistical footprint to operate. AFSOC commander Lt. Gen. Jim Slife told reporters in February he hopes Armed Overwatch aircraft could keep pressure on violent extremist organizations in places such as some parts of Africa, where extremist groups operate but the airspace is largely uncontested.
Slife said then that Armed Overwatch planes could conduct both intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, as well as close-air support and precision strike missions to support ground troops.
In a previous announcement on the program in April 2020, SOCOM said it planned to buy about 75 Armed Overwatch planes.
SOCOM said Friday that the five awardees will work on and demonstrate their prototypes primarily at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida; that process should be complete by March 2022.
The aircraft being considered include Leidos' Bronco II, MAG Aerospace's MC-208 Guardian, Textron's AT-6E Wolverine, L-3's AT-802U Sky Warden, and Sierra Nevada's MC-145B Wily Coyote.
The Air Force in recent years looked at Textron's AT-6 as part of its experiment with light attack aircraft; in 2019, it said it expects to buy two or three of them. The first AT-6E was delivered to the service in February.
Leidos announced in May 2020 that it had developed the Bronco II to meet SOCOM's needs and compete for the Armed Overwatch program. In March, MAG Aerospace announced the launch of the MC-208, which is based on the C-208 Cessna.
L-3 announced the single-engine turboprop Sky Warden earlier this month.
Sierra Nevada has not made any public announcements about the MC-145B. But for more than a decade, AFSOC has flown a variant called the C-145A Combat Coyote, primarily for combat air adviser missions.
Slife said AFSOC hopes that, as it brings on new planes for Armed Overwatch that can collect intelligence, it will be able to pull its costly U-28A Draco aircraft out of the field. The Draco is a small aircraft adapted from the Pilatus PC-12, which is capable of landing in small, rough airfields and flying in remote areas.
But the Draco is also an expensive plane to keep in the air. Because there are so few of them and they are not standard aircraft, it requires specialized equipment, maintenance and training to sustain them. This takes airmen away from bigger missions, driving up the cost of maintenance.
"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 in February.
-- Oriana Pawlyk contributed to this report.