An internal auditor for the US government says the Pentagon should slow purchases of a new close air support turboprop for special operations troops.

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) failed to adequately justify the planned acquisition of 75 aircraft under the Armed Overwatch programme.

The aircraft in question is the L3Harris-Air Tractor AT-802U Sky Warden, which SOCOM in 2022 selected as the winner of a competition to produce and deliver the new Armed Overwatch platform.

SOCOM expects to order a fleet of 75 aircraft, with a potential value of up to $3 billion, including logistics support and training.

L3Harris and Air Tractor’s joint bid beat out Sierra Nevada’s MC-145B and Textron’s AT-6E Wolverine to replace the current Pilatus PC-12 U-28A Draco turboprop.

AT-802U Sky Warden c Air Tractor

Source: L3Harris

The AT-802U Sky Warden collaboration between L3 Harris and Air Tractor was selected in 2022 for SOCOM’s Armed Overwatch programme to deliver a low-altitude close air support platform

With Armed Overwatch, SOCOM was seeking an aircraft that could expand beyond the U-28A’s aerial reconnaissance role to also fill a low-altitude close air support function.

At the time of competition decision, L3Harris received an initial award of $170 million.

In May 2023, the head of acquisitions for SOCOM confirmed to FlightGlobal that low-rate initial production had begun on six aircraft under Lot 1.

However, Washington’s independent watchdog agency now says SOCOM is moving too fast on the acquisition.

In a report released on 14 December, the GAO released a report claiming the Department of Defense (DoD) failed to properly assess SOCOM’s latest operational needs before committing to a 75-aircraft fleet of Sky Wardens.

“This analysis wasn’t completed before DoD decided to buy the planes,” the GAO says. “DoD’s special operations mission requirements have also changed in recent years, and it hasn’t evaluated if it still needs all 75 planes.”

SOCOM has already purchased 16 AT-802Us, according to the GAO, with a commitment to be made for 12 more aircraft by April 2024.

The command plans to reach full operational capability on the 75-strong fleet by 2029.

But the GAO says there is currently insufficient justification for acquiring that many Sky Wardens, even with SOCOM plans to retire the legacy fleet U-28As and L3Harris MC-12 twin-turboprops – a militarised derivative of the Beechcraft Super King Air 350ER.

“Studies completed in 2021 and 2022 did not justify SOCOM’s planned fleet size of 75 aircraft,” the GAO says.


Source: US Air Force/1st Special Operations Wing

The US Air Force Special Operations command currently operates a fleet of some 35 Pilatus PC-12 U-28A Draco reconnaissance aircraft alongside a smaller number of L3Harris MC-12 multi-role turboprops

Auditors add that four additional reviews conducted by “external entities” between 2021 and 2023 also failed to show a need for acquiring 75 Sky Wardens.

The 14 December report by the GAO alleges SOCOM decided upon the Armed Overwatch fleet size before conducting analysis required under government procurement rules.

Specifically, auditors say SOCOM officials did not study how capability improvements in the final design would impact the number of airframes necessary to support operational needs.

“The aircraft selected is more capable than the one modelled,” the GAO notes.

According to DoD figures published by the GAO, the air force component of SOCOM operates around 35 U-28s and 12 MC-12s, although precise figures are not provided.

The independent auditor also notes more recent changes to the Pentagon’s operational environment, including the 2021 withdrawal from combat operations in Afghanistan, were not factored into the fleet decision.

“Because of these reasons SOCOM is also not well-positioned to justify its acquisition timeline,” the GAO concludes.

Although findings from the independent agency are non-binding, GAO reports are used by Congress to inform budgeting decisions.

The GAO’s Armed Overwatch assessment did not come in time to affect procurement for next year. The 2024 defence spending plan was passed by Congress on 14 December – the same day it released its report.

That budget includes some $266 million for Armed Overwatch acquisition.

However, in what is sure to be unwelcome news for L3Harris and Air Tractor, the GAO is recommending reduced Sky Warden procurement going forward.

The agency says that starting in 2025, secretary of defense Lloyd Austin should limit AT-802U acquisitions to the “minimum rate needed to maintain the aircraft production line”, until SOCOM completes better analysis of fleet requirements.

Defence officials say SOCOM has flexibility in the number of aircraft it can order each year, ranging from one to 15 examples. 

Under the Armed Overwatch contract, Air Tractor will produce AT-802 single-engined crop dusters at the company’s aircraft manufacturing facility in Olney, Texas.

L3Harris will militarise the civilian airframes at a modification centre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, including the addition of sensors, communications equipment and weapons systems.