WASHINGTON — U.S. Special Operations Command should reconsider its plan to buy 75 Armed Overwatch aircraft, a government watchdog said Thursday.
The Government Accountability Office recommended the command slow down its acquisition of the AT-802U Sky Warden, its choice for Armed Overwatch program, beginning in fiscal 2025 until SOCOM carries out a more thorough analysis for the fleet.
Armed Overwatch is a program to field flexible, fixed-wing aircraft that Air Force Special Operations Command could deploy to austere locations. The effort would require a relatively small logistical tail.
SOCOM in 2022 selected the single-engine, two-person Sky Warden, made by L3Harris Technologies and Air Tractor, for the program and expects to spend $2.2 billion to buy the planes through FY29. The Sky Warden is intended to carry out close air support; precision strike; and armed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions for counterterrorism operations and irregular warfare.
Air Force Special Operations Command considers Armed Overwatch useful to pressure violent extremist groups in areas such as Africa, where the airspace is essentially uncontested. The aircraft would take over missions now supported by the older and retiring U-28 Draco.
But the study SOCOM performed to decide it needed 75 Armed Overwatch planes “relied on unproven assumptions” and didn’t justify a fleet of that size, GAO said in its report, titled “Special Operations Forces: DOD Should Slow Acquisition of Armed Overwatch Aircraft Until It Conducts Needed Analysis.”
When GAO ran the numbers on the commond’s force structure ratios and operational need estimates, it came up with a “substantially smaller” fleet size, though the watchdog did not say by how many.
SOCOM’s studies also made assumptions about the Armed Overwatch aircraft that didn’t reflect its expected capabilities or how it would be employed in operations, GAO said.
The office said documents and discussions with SOCOM officials showed the command had already decided it needed between 70 and 75 Armed Overwatch planes in 2019, two years before it started the necessary force structure analyses.
SOCOM also didn’t consider how changes to its mission, such as the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and possible reductions in force structure would affect its need for an Armed Overwatch plane, GAO said.
SOCOM also did not factor in whether changes in the Armed Overwatch plane’s capabilities would affect how many it would need to buy, GAO said. The Sky Warden plane on which SOCOM ultimately settled is more capable than the airplane the command originally envisioned for Armed Overwatch, which “could significantly change” how many planes it actually needs, the report said.
GAO did not rule out the possibility that the intended fleet of 75 may be fewer than SOCOM needs, since the proper analysis has not been performed. The office recommended SOCOM conduct a more thorough study of what it needs for Armed Overwatch. Until that analysis is done, GAO said, the Pentagon should require the command to only buy the minimum number of Sky Wardens needed to maintain its production line and support operational test and evaluation beginning in 2025.
The Defense Department agreed with GAO’s first recommendation and said it would analyze the force structure needed for Armed Overwatch.
The department partially agreed with the recommendation to temporarily limit Armed Overwatch acquisition, but said SOCOM will also consider whether it has enough aircraft to train the first cadre of aircrew to fly the Sky Warden and set up a training pipeline.
GAO said it agrees that training aircrews is an important part of setting up Armed Overwatch, but buying the right number of planes is important for SOCOM to set up its training plans and use personnel most efficiently.
SOCOM bought 16 Sky Wardens as of October 2023, and expects that number to rise to 28 aircraft by April 2024.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.