- U.S. Special Operations Command wants to purchase up to 75 planes capable of both reconnaissance and strike missions.
- At the same time, the U.S. Air Force is canceling plans to buy up to 300 light attack planes.
- The new planes will replace aircraft that carry out the same missions unarmed, giving SOCOM two planes for the price of one.
U.S. Special Operations Command plans to purchase up to 75 “armed overwatch” planes that will conduct intelligence, reconnaissance, and even strike missions. The planes will begin replacing older U-28 Draco aircraft currently in heavy use around the world. The news comes as the U.S. Air Force officially backs out of a similar program to purchase a large fleet of light attack aircraft.
Special Operations Command, a military command overseeing U.S. special operation units from across the armed services, wants to field an “armed overwatch” plane within five years, drawing from existing light aircraft attack offerings. An armed overwatch plane might fly in the vicinity of special operations troops on the ground, tracking enemies near them while providing the ability to launch short-notice air strikes. The plane would operate in theaters with a relatively low air defense threat, such as Somalia, Syria, or Afghanistan.
Thanks to the U.S. Air Force, SOCOM will be able to pick from a pool of known aircraft. The U.S. Air Force has conducted extensive tests of the Sierra Nevada/Embraer A-29 Super Tucano and Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine (pictured at the top of this article) for the service’s own OA-X program. OA-X was a requirement for a light attack aircraft, and the Air Force was allegedly interested in buying up to 300 of them for special operations and counterrorism duties. The Air Force finally stated earlier this week OA-X was dead and the service would not move forward with the program.
SOCOM is asking for $106 million to get the ball rolling on an eventual purchase of up to 75 armed overwatch planes. Apparently the U.S. Air Force does not see a pressing need for the planes but SOCOM, the command that would have used OA-X most often, most certainly does. SOCOM will almost certainly buy one of the two planes, using the Air Force’s testing data from the last three years to make a determination.
The new SOCOM plane will replace the U-28A Draco, a single engine turboprop plane that carries a crew of four, including a combat systems officer and a tactical systems officer. The U-28A was first fielded in 2006 and has advanced communications, navigation, and electro-optical sensors giving it the ability to spy on enemy forces on the ground. It is in effect a manned Predator drone, complete with a pair of analysts on board to analyze the data stream. It is however fairly expensive to operate, and the planes have been flown heavily in the post 9/11 era to where the Air Force/SOCOM wants a replacement.
The new plane will likely have the same (or better) suite of electro-optical sensors, but trade a crew of four for a crew of just two. Adding weapons to the plane ensures that one plane can accomplish the reconnaissance and strike roles in a single mission, eliminating a need for two different aircraft. Weapons the new plane will carry likely include the new Stormbreaker glide bomb, laser guided bombs, satellite guided bombs, laser-guided rockets, and machine guns.
Source: Air Force Magazine
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