National defense budget includes $166M for AFSOC aircraft, with a few strings attached

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

HURLBURT FIELD — In a move that could have implications for the Hurlburt Field, headquarters of the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), the federal defense budget for the 2022 fiscal year places some constraints on an "armed overwatch" aircraft acquisition program.

U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) wants to acquire 75 of the "armed overwatch" aircraft to be operated by AFSOC. They would replace AFSOC's fleet of propeller-driven U-28 Draco intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft. All of the U-28 aircraft will soon need to have new wings installed at considerable cost, according to recent reporting in Air Force Magazine.

The MC-208 Guardian, based on the Cessna Caravan, is the MAG Aerospace entry into the U.S. military's armed overwatch aircraft initiative. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the 2022 fiscal year, approved by Congress in recent days and waiting as of Tuesday for the expected signature of President Joe Biden, includes $166 million in procurement funding for the purchase of an initial six armed overwatch aircraft.

Background:Eglin AFB hosts testing of possible new Special Operations aircraft

From 2020: Crestview company to build new aircraft in pursuit of military contract

Seventy-five armed overwatch aircraft would provide AFSOC with four squadrons of that capability plus 15 training planes.

Like the U-28, the armed overwatch aircraft would be propeller-driven and would perform a variety of missions in austere environments, from intelligence gathering and reconnaissance to close-air support — the delivery of weapons fire, bombs and other ordinance — for ground troops.

Among the rationales for the program is that it would replace the higher-end aircraft, including fighter jets, that now perform many of the missions envisioned for the less-expensive armed overwatch aircraft.

Additionally, combining functions in a single aircraft could eliminate the need for "stacking" aircraft with different capabilities above an operational location.

The aircraft also would be within reasonable purchasing range for partner nations to the United States.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the 2022 fiscal year, approved by Congress in recent days and waiting as of Tuesday for the expected signature of President Joe Biden, includes $166 million in procurement funding for the purchase of an initial six armed overwatch aircraft. That's $4 million less than had been requested to get the program underway, but $17 million more than the U.S. Senate had initially been willing to spend.

More importantly, though, the 2022 NDAA — the act serves as both a funding and a policy document regarding America's armed forces — includes a provision that requires SOCOM to provide an "acquisition road map" to the defense committees in the U.S. House and Senate before any armed overwatch program funding is expended or obligated.

Scrutiny of the armed overwatch program also will continue in another way, as the result of a recent Senate Armed Services Committee instruction for the director of cost assessment and program evaluation in the office of Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III to review the program.

Related:A frickin' laser beam! Lockheed Martin delivers laser weapon for AFSOC's C-130 aircraft

A U-28 Draco sits recently on the flightline at Hurlburt Field. As the U-28 nears the end of its service life, the Air Force is pursuing the development of an Armed Overwatch aircraft.

That review is slated to be presented to the defense committees in Congress in tandem with Biden's budget request for the 2023 fiscal year, which will be made early next year. 

The assessment will be required, at a minimum, to "... evaluate the total number of Armed Overwatch aircraft necessary to fulfill the requirements of special operations forces in light of changes to global force posture and increasing threats to manned aircraft since the requirement for such aircraft was validated by the SOCOM Commander."

The reference to "changes in global force posture" is a reflection of the shift in national defense strategy from the counterterrorism operations that have defined it for the last couple of decades into a "great powers" focus that sees Russia and China as the major threats to U.S. national security.

More:No drone zone: Receive a drone as a gift? Hurlburt Field has some guidelines.

Until earlier this year, there had been another local connection besides AFSOC to the armed overwatch program.

The Crestview facility of Vertex Aerospace, a Madison, Mississippi-headquartered defense aerospace company, built an armed overwatch prototype in partnership with Leidos, an information technology and engineering contractor based in Reston, Virginia, and Paramount Group USA, based in Fort Worth, Texas, part of a global aerospace and technology company.

The Bronco II, built at the Crestview facility of Mississippi-based Vertex Aerospace, was one of five contenders for the armed overwatch special operations aircraft program. However, the Bronco II was eliminated from the competition earlier this year.

The partnership's Bronco II was one of five aircraft selected for an armed overwatch competition, but it was eliminated from consideration in September. Also knocked out of the competition earlier this year was Virginia-based MAG Aerospace.

The five aircraft were being tested at Eglin Air Force Base earlier this year when the Bronco II experienced a runway mishap. Neither Leidos nor SOCOM provided any details about the mishap at the time, but a photograph showed the Bronco II leaning on its left side, a wingtip either close to or actually touching the ground.   

Remaining in the armed overwatch competition — with a final decision expected in the spring, according to Aviation Week — are Kansas-headquartered Textron Aviation Defense LLC, Texas-based L-3 Communications Integrated Systems L.P. and Nevada-headquartered Sierra Nevada Corporation.