US Special Operations Command selects L3Harris Sky Warden for armed surveillance effort

WASHINGTON — The United States Special Operations Command announced Monday that it has selected the AT-802U Sky Warden, manufactured by L3Harris Technologies and Air Tractor, for its Armed Overwatch program.

The indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract will be worth up to $3 billion, L3Harris said in a statement Monday. The initial program contract award is $170 million.

Air Tractor is an aircraft manufacturer from Olney, Texas that typically manufactures firefighting aircraft and agricultural aircraft such as dust collectors.

Initial production of the Sky Warden will take place at Air Tractor’s facilities in Olney. L3Harris will then modify these aircraft into the Armed Overwatch mission configuration at its Tulsa, Oklahoma, modification center beginning in 2023. L3Harris said work will also take place at its other locations in Greenville, Rockwall and Waco, Texas and Nashville, Tennessee.

The Air Force Special Operations Command’s Armed Overwatch program aims to build a fleet of up to 75 flexible fixed-wing aircraft suitable for deployment in austere locations, with little logistical tail needed to keep them operational.

SOCOM envisions the single-engine Sky Warden, as AFSOC’s armed surveillance aircraft, to be capable of providing close air support, precision strikes and armed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions for operations counterterrorism and irregular warfare.

AFSOC Commander Lt. Gen. Jim Slife said last year he hoped Armed Overwatch aircraft would be suitable for pressuring extremist groups in places like Africa, where space aerial is essentially undisputed.

The Air Force has decided to establish a series of Armed Overwatch aircraft as it shifts its primary focus – and some of its more complex and expensive-to-operate fighters and bombers – away from countering terrorist groups. and violent extremist organizations in places like the Middle East.

The L3Harris Sky Warden will be used to pressure terrorist groups in places like Africa, where airspace is largely permissive. (L3Harris)

“Armed Overwatch fulfills a critical need for U.S. Special Operations Command to conduct a wide range of operations on a global scale in support of national defense strategy,” said SOCOM Commander, the General Richard Clarke, in a statement. “This rugged and durable platform will operate in permissive environments and austere conditions around the world to protect our special operations forces in the field.”

SOCOM said the aircraft would be inexpensive, capable of taking off and landing in austere fields, flying for long periods, and supporting a variety of modular payloads.

Last year, Slife suggested that Armed Overwatch would allow AFSOC to take its aging and expensive U-28A Draco ISR aircraft – a rare aircraft that requires specialized equipment and training to maintain – out of the field.

But SOCOM said in a statement Monday to the Air Force Times that even after the Sky Warden is delivered, the U-28 will still be needed to provide ISR for operations such as search and rescue and humanitarian assistance.

Clarke told lawmakers last year he was considering four operational squadrons of 15 Armed Overwatch aircraft, with one deployed at all times while the other three train, recover and are kept at home. Clarke also said a fifth squadron of 10–15 aircraft would be for training.

L3Harris beat out four other competitors – Leidos, MAG Aerospace, Textron Aviation Defense and Sierra Nevada – for the Armed Overwatch contract. These five companies produced prototype aircraft that were evaluated, primarily at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, in late 2021 and early 2022.

L3Harris said it would move quickly to get its prototype aircraft into production configuration and allow SOCOM to begin testing later this year.

Six aircraft will be delivered in the first initial low-rate production batch.

Under the contract, L3Harris would also provide training systems, mission planning systems, support equipment, spare parts and logistics support.

The Sky Warden is expected to reach initial operational capability in fiscal year 2026 and full operational capability in 2029, SOCOM said.

Rachel Cohen contributed to this report.

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