WASHINGTON — U.S. Special Operations Command on Monday announced it has selected the AT-802U Sky Warden, made by L3Harris Technologies and Air Tractor, for its Armed Overwatch program.
The indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract will be worth up to $3 billion, L3Harris said in a release Monday. The initial program contract award is for $170 million.
Air Tractor is an aircraft manufacturer from Olney, Texas, that typically makes firefighting aircraft and agricultural planes such as crop dusters.
Initial production of the Sky Warden will take place at Air Tractor’s facility in Olney. L3Harris will then modify those planes into the Armed Overwatch mission configuration at its Tulsa, Oklahoma modification center, beginning in 2023. L3Harris said work will also take place at its other sites in Greenville, Rockwall and Waco, Texas and Nashville, Tennessee.
Air Force Special Operations Command’s Armed Overwatch program aims to build a fleet of up to 75 flexible, fixed-wing aircraft suitable for deployment to austere locations, with little logistical tail needed to keep them operating.
SOCOM is planning for the single-engine Sky Warden, as AFSOC’s Armed Overwatch plane, to be able to provide close air support, precision strike and armed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions for counterterrorism operations and irregular warfare.
AFSOC commander Lt. Gen. Jim Slife said last year he hopes Armed Overwatch aircraft will be suited to pressure extremist groups in places like Africa, in which the airspace is essentially uncontested.
The Air Force moved to establish a series of Armed Overwatch planes as it shifted its primary focus — and some of its more complex and expensive-to-operate fighters and bombers — away from combating terrorist groups and violent extremist organizations in places like the Middle East.
“Armed Overwatch answers a critical need for U.S. Special Operations Command to conduct a wide range of operations globally in support of the National Defense Strategy,” SOCOM Commander Gen. Richard Clarke said in a release. “This rugged, sustainable platform will operate in permissive environments and austere conditions around the world to safeguard our special operations forces on the ground.”
SOCOM said the plane would be low cost, able to take off and land in austere fields, fly for long periods, and support a variety of modular payloads.
Last year, Slife suggested Armed Overwatch would allow AFSOC to take its aging and expensive U-28A Draco ISR aircraft — a rare aircraft that requires specialized equipment and training to maintain — out of the field.
But SOCOM said in a statement to Air Force Times on Monday that even after the Sky Warden is delivered, the U-28 will still be needed to provide ISR for operations like search and rescue and humanitarian relief.
Clarke told lawmakers last year he envisions four operational squadrons of 15 Armed Overwatch planes, with one deployed at any given time while the other three train, recover and are maintained at home. Clarke also said a fifth squadron of 10 to 15 planes would be for training.
L3Harris beat out four other competitors — Leidos, MAG Aerospace, Textron Aviation Defense and Sierra Nevada — for the Armed Overwatch contract. Those five firms produced prototype aircraft that were evaluated, mainly at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, in late 2021 and early 2022.
L3Harris said it will move fast to turn its prototype aircraft into the production configuration, and allow SOCOM to start testing later this year.
Six planes will be delivered in the first low-rate initial production lot.
Under the contract, L3Harris also would provide training systems, mission planning systems, support equipment, spares and logistical support.
The Sky Warden is expected to reach initial operating capability in fiscal 2026, and full operating capability in 2029, SOCOM said.
Rachel Cohen contributed to this report.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.