The modified crop duster was selected for the special armed observation mission of operations

The US Special Operations Command will soon launch a highly adapted crop duster for surveillance and strike missions, according to plans the command announced yesterday. In a somewhat surprising move, SOCOM has awarded a contract to L3 Harris Technologies for the AT-802U Sky Warden, which is based on an agricultural tail-propelled aircraft, making it the winner in its long-running armed competition.

An indefinite delivery contract (IDIQ) — a type of contract that stipulates an indefinite amount of supplies or services over a specified period — has a $3 billion cost ceiling and can include delivery of up to 75 AT-802Us. The program’s initial contract is worth $170 million, according to L3 Harris, with six aircraft to be delivered to SOCOM under the initial low-price production batch, known as Lot 1.

An AT-802U Sky Warden demonstrator over Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Air Tractor Inc.

In addition to the aircraft themselves, L3 Harris will supply training systems, mission planning systems, support equipment, spare parts and logistical support.

“Sky Warden will provide robust and affordable close air support, precision strikes, and armed ISR.” [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance]command and control capabilities directly for special operations forces on the battlefield,” Sean Stackley, Head of Integrated Mission Systems, L3Harris, said in a statement. “We are now ready to begin work on this modern, multi-mission system for the SOCOM Armed Overwatch program.”

The first six Sky Warders units are scheduled to achieve this initial operational capability in fiscal year 2026. Full operational capability will follow in 2029. Ultimately, it is expected that there will be four squadrons of AT-802Us, each of 15 aircraft, with one squadron Deployed at any time while the other three are in the Training, Recovery and Maintenance cycle. A fifth squadron may be provided for training exclusively.

The AT-802U was developed by L3 Harries in collaboration with Air Tractor, best known for its firefighting and agricultural aircraft, in May 2021. It was one of five competing designs in operation for the Armed Overwatch program. The other contenders are Leidos Inc. Bronco II, MAG Aerospace MC-208 Guardian, MC-145B Wily Coyote of Sierra Nevada Corporation and Textron Aviation Defense AT-6E Wolverine.

For most of the past year, prototypes of these planes took part in run-out flight shows from Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, which was expected to end in March of this year. SOCOM awarded a total of $19.2 million to the five companies to fund the demonstrations.

Military Overwatch aims to use a low-cost aircraft capable of flying both ISR and light strike missions in austerity environments. The aircraft selected will replace the Air Force’s U-28 Draco fleet, based on the Pilatus PC-12 turboprop which you can read more about here.

A U-28A Draco. US Air Force

“Military Overwatch addresses the critical need for U.S. Special Operations Command to conduct a broad spectrum of operations globally in support of the national defense strategy,” U.S. Special Operations Command Commander General Richard Clark said in a statement. “This robust and sustainable platform will operate in permissive environments and harsh conditions around the world to protect our special operations forces on the ground.” In fact, the crop duster roots of the AT-802U should make this aircraft, in particular, extremely useful in operations with a very small area on very closely spaced areas with small bumpy runways. Moreover, the fact that Air Tractor operates all over the world means that the possibility of support must be easy and reliable.

Prior to Military Overwatch, SOCOM demonstrated the basics of the concept in 2015, with a field test in Iraq using a pair of heavily modified OV-10G+ Broncos. This operational experience demonstrated how armed continuous surveillance and response aircraft can be of great use to special operations forces, and how light strike aircraft and ISR aircraft can, in some extreme situations, replace combat aircraft or even drones. You can read more about these aircraft and their activities in the past war zone to cut.

One of two OV-10G+ aircraft while in service with US Special Operations Command. John Liquirica

In keeping with the program’s compact schedule, the successful AT-802U demonstrator will now be converted to production configuration, and then used by SOCOM for weapons trials. L3 Harris says that should take six months, allowing low-price production to begin in 2023.

While the AT-802U airframes will be supplied by the Air Tractor facility in Olney, Texas, the aircraft will receive its mission equipment at the L3 Harris facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

SOCOM hopes that Military Overwatch will provide a more flexible and adaptable aircraft than those currently used for similar missions. Testifying before Congress in April, the head of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) Lt. Gen. James C. “Jim” Slave explained that the aircraft selected should eliminate the need for “air stacks,” as there are various special mission aircraft – such as the AC-130 and A-10, MQ-9, and U-28 – Required to work together to fulfill the requirements of the assignment.

Air Tractor Inc.

“The idea for Armed Overwatch is [that] It is a modular capability and therefore you can equip the aircraft with a powerful array of sensors that will exceed what is available with most dedicated ISR platforms today.” Or you can equip the platform with a powerful array of precision munitions. It really depends on the mission, and an armed observation platform is clearly not a panacea for every tactical situation a ground force might find themselves in.”

Slave’s final point is reinforced by the fact that the AT-802U would only realistically be expected to overfly permitted airspace, of the kind encountered in Afghanistan and during missions against ISIS in the Middle East. The importance of these types of counterinsurgency missions may have diminished since operations in those theaters began to wane, but they remain an essential part of Special Operations Command (SOCOM) capabilities.

The two-seater cockpit of the AT-802U Sky Warden pretender. Air Tractor Inc.

In choosing the AT-802U, SOCOM identified as key factors the aircraft’s ability to carry standard payloads, low operating costs, and suitability for operations from rigorous airstrips.

For their part, L3 Harris and Air Tractor claim that the AT-802U has the largest payload capacity of any single-turbocharged aircraft. According to the manufacturer, the aircraft has a maximum gross weight of 16,000 pounds and a payload capacity of 8,000 pounds.

In an overview of the AT-802U on its website, L3 Harris outlines the following key capability points:

  • Durable and reliable – Air Tractor 802U is designed and built for rigorous operations
  • Efficient and flexible Combat-proven multi-mission open systems architecture for “stack collapse”, replacing multiple aircraft with one
  • stability and load capacity – 6 hours at a combat radius of 200 nm; 6000lb Flexible Combat Load
  • Connected – A robust suite of radios and data links that provide multiple means of line-of-sight (LOS) and beyond line-of-sight (BLOS) communications
  • situational awareness Ability to host multiple photoelectric/infrared (EO/IR), ISR and other sensors
  • Affordable and sustainable Low production and operating costs, backed by a well-established global sustainability network
  • Legacy of Special Operations Forces – Mature system built on more than 1.3 million hours of ISR, strike support and upgrades led by mission operators
  • production ready Delivery in less than 12 months

The ability of the AT-802U to act as a communications gateway should not be overlooked, since special forces operators on the ground are the main beneficiaries of BLOS communications, which will be ensured even when operating in complex terrain.

As for the weapons and sensors we can expect to see installed on the AT-802U, the L3 Harris and Air Tractor have released very few details so far. However, the offered EO/IR sensors include what’s described as the MMSS Pod 1, which appears to combine the WESCAM MX-15 and the MX-20 sensor turret in one store. The MX-15 and MX-20 sensors are L3 Harris products that can be configured to carry a mix of EO/IR cameras, as well as laser locators. They can combine multispectral video together which makes them more capable than traditional FLIR systems.

The AT-802U is advertised as having eight wing hardpoints that can each hold a 500-pound class weapon and two wing hardpoints that can each hold a 1,000-pound class weapon. Among the hard points in the wings, the deeper stop on each side was optimized for guns, either 50-caliber machine guns or 20-mm guns.

In a so-called “standard configuration,” the AT-802U can carry one MMSS Pod 1 as well as a pair of seven-round LAU-131 rocket launchers. It can be filled with AGR-20 Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System II (APKWS II) laser-guided missiles.

Configure the “maximum strike load” of the AT-802U. Air Tractor Inc.

Manufacturers also advertise a ‘maximum strike load’, in which the aircraft is fitted with an MMSS Pod 1, four undisclosed precision-guided missiles (apparently AGM-114 Hellfire missiles), and two of the four apparently common launch tube rounds (CLT), and two 500-pound GBU-12 laser-guided bombs. The CLT interface can be used to fire various precision-guided munitions, including the GBU-69/B Small Glide Munition (SGM) glide bomb and the AGM-176 Griffin missile, as well as Coyote UAVs.

Less clear are the types of defense systems that will be provided, although they are likely to be fairly extensive, with a particular focus on protection against MANPADS, or MANPADS. Air Tractor Inc. To the ability of the aircraft to receive Optional AN/AAR-47 missile warning system and AN/ALE-47 countermeasures launcher, “or other systems as desired.”

It should be noted that the L3 Harris and Air Tractor can also market the AT-802U to other customers, including foreign armed forces, who may be interested in the capabilities it offers. Already, manufacturers have identified the US State Department and the UAE as customers for the AT-802, and other iterations of the basic Air Tractor design have also found military applications.

Two flicks of US Department of State AT-802 crops circa 2013. Used to spray herbicides on drug fields, most of these have been delivered to partner countries. From

However, there may still be obstacles to the plans of the SOCOM AT-802U. Congress has not always been convinced, in the past, of the need for an armed oversight program, including the refusal to fund procurement in the National Defense Authorization Act for the 2021 fiscal year. However, Congress did allow the air demonstration to go ahead.

In its defense, SOCOM noted the versatility of the Military Overwatch concept as well as the promised cost savings. Earlier this year, Lieutenant General Slave told lawmakers that the new plane would cost “less than $10,000” per flight hour, compared to more than $150,000 for a conventional multi-type “antenna stack.”

Meanwhile, US special operators have long had a desire to have organic, low-cost, manned light attack aircraft to support their missions under permitted airspace and work closely with ground forces near the front edge of the battle zone. Armed Overwatch’s production contract puts that ambition back on track.

And with the Air Force’s plans to retire the A-10 and MQ-9 increasingly likely to succeed, demand for an aircraft in the armed surveillance class could become even greater in the future.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com

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