WASHINGTON — US Special Operations Command announced Monday that it has selected the AT-802U Sky Warden, made by L3Harris Technologies and Air Tractor, for its Armed Overwatch program.
The indefinite supply and indefinite quantity contract will be worth up to $3 billion, L3Harris said in a release Monday. The initial award of the program contract is $170 million.
Air Tractor is an aircraft manufacturer from Olney, Texas, which typically makes fire-fighting and agricultural aircraft, such as gritters.
The first production of the Sky Warden will take place at Air Tractor’s factory in Olney. L3Harris will then adapt those aircraft to the Armed Overwatch mission configuration at its modification center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, beginning in 2023. L3Harris said the 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 plans to enable the single-engine Sky Warden, as AFSOC’s Armed Overwatch aircraft, to provide air support, precision strikes and armed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions for counter-terrorism operations and illegal warfare.
AFSOC commander Lt. Gen. Jim Slife said last year that he hopes Armed Overwatch planes will be suitable to pressure extremist groups in places like Africa, where airspace is essentially unchallenged.
The Air Force went on to set up a series of armed Overwatch aircraft as it shifted its primary focus — and some of its more complex and expensive fighters and bombers — from fighting terrorist groups and violent extremist organizations in places like the Middle East. .
“Armed Overwatch responds to a critical need for the US Special Operations Command to conduct a wide range of operations worldwide in support of national defense strategy,” SOCOM Commander General Richard Clarke said in a press release. “This rugged, durable platform will operate in permissive environments and harsh conditions around the world to protect our special operations forces on the ground.”
SOCOM said the aircraft would be inexpensive, be able to take off and land in austere fields, fly for long periods and support 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 — off the field.
But SOCOM said in a statement to the Air Force Times on Monday 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 aid.
Clarke told lawmakers last year that he envisions four operational squadrons of 15 Armed Overwatch aircraft, one of which will be deployed anytime while the other three train, recover and are maintained at home. Clarke also said a fifth squadron of 10 to 15 aircraft would be in training.
L3Harris beat out four other competitors – Leidos, MAG Aerospace, Textron Aviation Defense and Sierra Nevada – for the Armed Overwatch contract. Those five companies produced prototype aircraft that were evaluated in late 2021 and early 2022, primarily at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
L3Harris said it will act quickly to change its prototype aircraft into production configuration, and have SOCOM begin testing later this year.
Six aircraft will be delivered in the first low cost initial production lot.
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 2026 and full operational capability in 2029, SOCOM said.
Rachel Cohen contributed to this report.