A partnership between L3Harris and Air Tractor has been selected to supply the USA’s elite special operations forces with a new close air support platform.

The Armed Overwatch programme was launched by US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) in 2020 to deliver a replacement for the Pilatus U-28A Draco turboprop, which currently fills only an aerial reconnaissance role.

AT-802U Sky Warden c Air Tractor

Source: L3Harris

The AT-802U Sky Warden collaboration between L3 Harris and Air Tractor has been chosen as the winner of SOCOM’s Armed Overwatch programme

In a contract announcement on 1 August, the US Department of Defense said that L3Harris has been selected as the winner of the Armed Overwatch competition, beating rivals Sierra Nevada and Textron.

The award covers as many as 75 aircraft, plus associated training and logistics support, with a total potential value of up to $3 billion. The contract includes an initial award of $170 million.

The winning bid from L3Harris and Air Tractor featured Air Tractor’s AT-802 single-engined turboprop airframe, with heavy modifications from L3Harris, including sensors, communications equipment and weapons systems.

The militarised version of the aircraft, dubbed the AT-802U Sky Warden, is already in service with the air forces of Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

“Sky Warden will bring powerful and affordable close air support, precision strike, armed ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], and command and control capabilities directly to special operations forces in the battlefield,” says Sean Stackley, president of Integrated Mission Systems for L3Harris. “We are ready now to begin work on this modern, multi-mission system for the SOCOM Armed Overwatch programme.”

The company’s website claims that the Sky Warden is production-ready, with potential to deliver aircraft in less than 12 months.

Air Tractor affirmed that claim, with president Jim Hirsch saying “our production and engineering staff are ready to immediately deliver this world-class product to our nation’s special forces”.

The joint L3Harris-Air Tractor design beat and Sierra Nevada’s MC-145B and Textron’s AT-6E Wolverine. All three are propeller-driven airframes that had conducted demonstration flights for SOCOM in 2021.

The group says production of operational aircraft will begin in 2023 at L3Harris’s Tulsa, Oklahoma modification centre, following initial production at Air Tractor’s Olney, Texas aircraft manufacturing facility. Six new aircraft will be delivered under the low-rate initial production Lot 1.

In its solicitation for Armed Overwatch, SOCOM noted that it was seeking an aircraft that can function in an “austere and permissible environment”, meaning the operators were prioritising an airframe that is rugged, reliable and able to operate from a short runway, over one that is fast or stealthy like modern fighter jets.

SOCOM oversees special operations forces from all branches of the US military and operates its own procurement offices and programmes separate from the rest of the conventional force.

The Armed Overwatch programme is being managed by SOCOM’s Program Executive Office for Fixed Wing, which also oversees platforms like the Lockheed Martin AC-130 gunship, various unmanned air systems and air-launched precision strike weapons.