L3Harris and Air Tractor have entered low-rate initial production (LRIP) on their joint Sky Warden light attack turboprop for US Special Operations Command (SOCOM).

AT-802U Sky Warden c Air Tractor

The AT-802U Sky Warden collaboration between L3Harris and Air Tractor was selected in 2022 for SOCOM’s Armed Overwatch programme to deliver a low-altitude close air support platform

The command’s acquisitions executive Jim Smith confirmed the initial production run during the Special Operations Forces Week conference in Tampa, Florida on 9 May.

“We’re very pleased with the progress,” Smith says.

L3Harris has previously said the LRIP contract for Armed Overwatch covers six new aircraft under Lot 1 production.

L3Harris and Air Tractor were selected for SOCOM’s Armed Overwatch programme in 2022, with their single-engined AT-802U Sky Warden, beating designs from Sierra Nevada and Textron. The platform, a derivative of Air Tractor’s crop-dusting aircraft, will replace Pilatus U-28A Draco turboprops used by SOCOM for aerial reconnaissance.

The programme of record includes up to 75 aircraft at a value of $3 billion.

In its solicitation for Armed Overwatch, SOCOM said it sought an aircraft that can function in an “austere and permissible environment” – it favoured a rugged and reliable aircraft capable of operating from short runways, rather than a faster or stealthy modern fighter.

At the time of the Armed Overwatch award in August 2022, L3Harris said Sky Warden was production-ready and that deliveries could begin within 12 months.

SOCOM now says full-rate production of AT-802Us has been delayed approximately three months owing to new training and to system requirements that military officials requested L3Harris address.

“This will be the first tail dragger aircraft in the air force… inventory in many years,” Smith says. We want to make sure we’ve added time in the schedule for our operators, our pilots to work with the technology.”

Tail draggers – or tail-wheel aircraft – have two forward landing gears and a single rear wheel.

All current US Air Force fighters, bombers and cargo aircraft use tricycle gear configurations, with two main landing gear assemblies and a forward nose gear. The lone exception is Lockheed Martin’s U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance jet, which has a bicycle landing gear configuration, involving forward and aft centreline gears and wing-mounted “outrigger” gears.

Smith says SOCOM also asked L3Harris to incorporate a different radio system into Sky Warden, to improve commonality with ground forces.

“That did cause a change from what they had demonstrated,” Smith notes. “So we had to add a bit of time for them to incorporate [it].”

The radio in question is L3Harris’s Falcon AN/PRC-167 wideband tactical system, which can be carried by ground troops. L3Harris says the radio can overcome “extreme distances, geographical barriers and adversarial [electronic warfare] aggression”.

The company did not respond to a request for comment about its latest timeline for Sky Warden production and deliveries.