U.S. Special Operations Fast-Tracks New "Armed Overwatch" Attack Plane
photo - MAG Aerospace MC-208 Armed Caravan
By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven
(Washington, D.C.) They take heavy fire, navigate uneven dangerous terrain, light-up targets in high risk areas, train indigenous forces for warfare and maneuver to contact amid complex combat scenarios …. they... are U.S. Special Operations Forces.
They often operate in small, forward-operating units detached from larger headquarters or mechanized ground forces; their mission is asymmetrical and varied, to include intelligence work, missions behind enemy borders and direct action operations such as combat raids on specific enemy targets. Given all these factors, and the increasingly high-tech threat environment, U.S. Special Operations Command is pursuing a new "Armed Overwatch" surveillance/attack/close-air-support aircraft for its forces.
SOF units, which currently operate in more than 50-countries, have in recent years sustained an almost unthinkable op-tempo to keep pace with global demand. Also, SOF missions and training have continued to evolve and pivot as the Pentagon adjusts its primary focus from counterinsurgency to great power competition. At the same time, the need for counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, tribal warfare and small wars has by no means gone away. This is especially true in places like the African continent, an area where SOF forces have been particularly focused in recent years.
All of these missions, it seems clear, either require or would greatly benefit from air surveillance and attack possibilities able to support moving SOF units in close proximity. While a ubiquitous, seemingly insatiable demand for ISR has pervaded the entire U.S. military, one could easily say that closer-in ISR and aerial attack operations may be a particular necessity for detached SOF units operating far away from larger units.
They need organic, synergized air support able to adjust as missions change and evolve in real time. Lives depend upon this. Perhaps concentrations of enemy forces are gathering on the other side of a mountain, staging and preparing for attack? All while SOF forces advance in their direction. Wouldn’t they need both the surveillance data to know the enemy force was there and, perhaps of greater importance, an option to attack enemy fortifications from the air? Among other things, this kind of close-in, adjustable air support can enable SOF units to maneuver or reposition in combat. Greater yet, integrated air support can offer SOF Commanders direct action attack options.
The need for SOF units to have this kind of support has been expressed by lawmakers for many months, such as Rep. Michael Waltz, (R-Fla.). In an interview several months ago, Waltz told Warrior his view on this topic of providing close-in air support to SOF units. Waltz is intimately familiar with the need for SOF units to have this asset in combat, having himself fought in Afghanistan as a Green Beret for many years.
“There are plenty of countries that have an extremist threat -- the Middle East and South and Central Africa. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) is asking for this for Nigeria, Somalia and Libya. It is a perfect platform for where we are fighting,” Waltz told Warrior several months ago.
It is with these circumstances in mind that U.S. Special Operations Command has embarked upon an ambitious, fast-tracked effort to bring an “Armed Overwatch” light aircraft to support its units in combat. SOCOM’s solicitation to industry specifically cites the mission range to include “Close Air Support, Armed Reconnaissance, Precision-Strike Attack, ISR and Forward Air Control -- in ‘austere and permissive” environments.’”
If overhead fire support is able to identify and attack pockets of enemy fighters, fewer ground troops have to enter into enemy fire. Also, an overhead asset of this kind can be an intelligence node able to send targeting information and data regarding troop movements. When it comes to actual close-in counterinsurgency combat, fighters often obscure themselves in defilade or in buildings, requiring a need for precision strikes. Air to ground precision weapons can use a laser rangefinder and other kinds of advanced targeting technologies - providing what could be called an indispensable element of attack support.
An Armed Overwatch SOCOM meets a particular need because it can operate in close-in, nearly immediate coordination with the units it supports. Air attack or readily available surveillance, for instance, will not need to be called upon from less accessible fixed-runway-reliant aircraft; SOCOM seeks a rugged aircraft able to land, fly and operate in rugged, austere terrain - as evidenced by its description. F-22s, F-16s, A-10s and even F-35s can be used for close-air-support, however they require a fixed, hard runway and are therefore less able to take off and land in rugged, uneven terrain in close proximity to SOF units on the ground. Also, the Pentagon seeks a produceable, less expensive aircraft that can perform these missions, freeing up 5th generation and other fixed-wing aircraft for operations in less permissive environments where air supremacy needs to be established -- such as enemy territory armed with advanced air defenses or fighter jets.
“SOCOM is aware of the operational environment requiring these kinds of operational concepts,” Tim Wells, Senior Director, Mission Integration Division, MAG Aerospace, told Warrior. MAG Aerospace is one of several vendors now competing to build and deliver the new aircraft to SOCOM.
SOCOM is pursuing a phased strategy to develop this aircraft, the first phase of which includes MAG’s MC-208 Multi-Role Armed Caravan from MAG Aerospace and many other offerings from industry competitors… including L3’s AT-802 Longsword, Leidos, Paramount USA and Vertex Aerospace’s Bronco II Aircraft, Orbital ATKs AC-208 Eliminator. At the moment, the respective industry bidders have submitted White Papers as part of a broader SOCOM trajectory leading to an eventual flight demonstration of the aircraft.
Each of the competitors is offering various aircraft, sensor and weapons integration possibilities in an effort to meet SOCOM’s sought-after requirements. MAG Aerospace’s Caravan offering, for instance, seeks to capitalize upon a combat-tested, ready-to-produce variant of its now in-service Cessna C-208 ISR light aircraft. The MAG surveillance and missionized aircraft have been supporting U.S. allies’ operations in Uganda, Kenya, Niger, Chad, Cameroon, Philippines, Jordan, Honduras, Guatemala and other countries. Its new MC-208 Caravan involves a weaponized adaptation of the now operational aircraft.
The MC-208 Armed Caravan is already in service with one SOCOM customer and another one in production for a U.S. allied international force. The Aircraft consists of a Textron-built airframe and MAG-integrated sensors, communications, avionics and weapons systems. Wells stated that the current SOCOM customer has found the transition to the MC-208 to be an easy one. He added that the customer has built upon the ISR subject matter expertise of its aircrew and added Precision Strike differences training to fully qualify its MC-208 aircrew.
“We are building this with a platform that is in production with a pedigree that goes back many years. With this we don’t have to prove out that our aircraft can be supported, as it has over 20 million flight hours,” Wells said.
The MC-208 Caravan can be armed with up to eight Hellfire missiles and as many as 28 Advanced Precision Kill Weapons Systems (APKWS) laser-guided rockets for smaller targets. MAG developers emphasize that its offering is specifically configured to quickly adapt its sensors and weapons to various mission requirements such as those needed for casualty evacuation, direct attack or maneuvering surveillance operations. APKWS Hydra 70 Folding Fin Rockets can either lay down suppressive fire to enable troop movement or pinpoint exact targets with laser designation.
MAGs strategy, as explained by developers, is to engineer an aircraft with upgradeable systems, sensors and weapons through a “plug-and-play” type of approach. This way, new software could, if needed, help integrate emerging weapons, higher-fidelity sensor technology or improved sensor-to-shooter time. Wells explained that tactical mission flexibility is the technical foundation upon which the Caravan is engineered. Surveillance missions, for instance, might need a suite of integrated cameras networked through a command and control system. Direct action attack missions may need slightly adjusted targeting, weapons or fire control configurations and blended surveillance-attack operations might require yet another technical adjustment. Each mission scenario might need its own blend of laser designators, Electro-Optical cameras, command and control networks and specially tailored sensor suites engineered to find … and destroy .. enemy targets in support of maneuvering SOF units on the ground.
“Within a matter of hours we can reconfigure the aircraft for whatever is required by the user,” Wells said.
Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army - Acquisition, Logistics& Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.