The head of Air Force Special Operations Command said he is feeling confident about acquiring a new cheap and light aircraft next year as part of the Armed Overwatch program for missions against terrorist and extremists in places such as Africa.
The command wants to field a series of about 75 flexible, fixed-wing aircraft that could fly in remote locations and require little logistical support. The fleet could provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as close-air support and precision-strike missions in coordination with ground troops.
Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, the AFSOC commander, said testing and evaluation of the Armed Overwatch candidate planes at Florida's Eglin Air Force Base has gone well, adding that congressional support for the program is growing. He spoke to reporters during the Air Force Association's Air Space & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland.
"I think there's a good likelihood that we'll go into procurement in fiscal year '22," he said.
Slife said earlier this year that AFSOC thinks an Armed Overwatch plane could keep up pressure on terrorist or other violent extremist groups that don't fly aircraft, without requiring the expense of more advanced U.S. fighter aircraft.
U.S. Special Operations Command in May announced contracts totaling $19.2 million awarded to five companies for prototype aircraft: Leidos Inc., MAG Aerospace, Textron Aviation Defense, L-3 Communications Integrated Systems, and Sierra Nevada Corp.
SOCOM said in May that the five demonstrations likely would be completed by March 2022. Slife said Monday that three vendors had demonstrated their aircraft over the summer and met all the requirements.
SOCOM commander Gen. Richard Clarke told lawmakers in July that he envisioned having four operational squadrons of 15 aircraft apiece. One of those would be deployed at any given time, he said, and the others would be home for training, maintenance and recovery to prepare for their next deployment.
A fifth squadron for training purposes was also being considered, Clarke said.