US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) plans to conduct a flight demonstration as part of its Armed Overwatch light-attack aircraft prototype project in November 2020.

Should SOCOM decide to move forward with Overwatch after demonstrations, one company could be awarded a production contract for 75 aircraft to be delivered over a five- to seven-year period, the service says in a 2 April online notice.

One Ship - Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine

Source: Textron

Textron Beechcraft’s AT-6 Wolverine could be a contender for an Armed Overwatch aircraft.

“The Armed Overwatch programme will provide Special Operations Forces deployable, affordable and sustainable single-engined fixed-wing manned aircraft systems fulfilling close air support, armed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, strike coordination and reconnaissance, and forward air controller requirements in austere and permissive environments for the countering-violent extremist organisation missions,” SOCOM says.

SOCOM says the Armed Overwatch programme will have three phases.

Interested companies must first submit a notice of intent and a white paper about their proposed aircraft. The notice of intent is due 8 April. The white paper is due 1 May.

In the second phase, SOCOM will meet with companies for two-day, one-on-one sessions at potential contractor facilities. The government plans to review bidders’ technical approach, technical maturity, proposed schedule, manufacturing readiness and Department of Defense flight and weapons clearances.

“Affordability of the proposed weapons system and lifecycle costs will be increasingly more important evaluation criteria from phase two through the production award,” says SOCOM. “If the SOCOM evaluation team favourably evaluates an offeror during this phase, negotiations to award an [Other Transaction Authority (OTA) Agreement] under phase three may begin in as little as two weeks.”

OTAs have fewer regulations than conventional Federal Acquisition Regulation-based acquisitions. In particular, the Department of Defense has claimed the process allows it to more openly communication with companies about technology requirements. The Pentagon has held up OTAs as a means to prototype and buy aircraft faster.

In the third phase, SOCOM plans to award four competitors no more than $4 million each to demonstrate their aircraft in November 2020.

“The government will identify the specific test dates at the start of phase three and a random draw will determine the order of testing,” says SOCOM.

The service anticipates the whole programme lasting about 12 months, likely ending by 1 April 2021 – with or without a production contract granted.

Likely competitors in the Armed Overwatch programme include fixed-wing light attack aircraft, such as the Textron Beechcraft AT-6 and Sierra Nevada /Embraer A-29.

Turboprop light attack aircraft can carry machine guns, rockets, missiles and precision bombs. Critically, light attack aircraft have a cost per flight hour that is tens of thousands of dollars less than advanced fighters such as the Boeing F-15E or Lockheed Martin F-35.