L3Harris said in a statement Monday that the indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract will be worth up to $3 billion. The initial program contract was awarded for $170 million.
Air Tractor is an aircraft manufacturer from Olney, Texas, that typically manufactures firefighting and agricultural aircraft such as crop deflectors.
Initial production of Sky Warden will take place at the Air Tractor facility in Olney. L3Harris will then modify those aircraft in a Military Overwatch mission configuration in Tulsa, the Oklahoma modification center, starting in 2023. L3Harris said work will also take place at its other locations in Greenville, Rockwall, Waco, Texas and Nashville, Tennessee.
The Air Force Special Operations Command’s Armed Surveillance Program aims to build a fleet of up to 75 flexible fixed-wing aircraft suitable for deployment to close locations, with little to no logistical tail needed to keep them operational.
SOCOM plans the single-engine Sky Warden, as the AFSOC’s armed surveillance aircraft, to be able to provide close air support, precision strikes, armed intelligence missions, surveillance and reconnaissance for counterterrorism and irregular warfare operations.
AFSOC Commander Lieutenant General Jim Slave said last year that he hoped armed aircraft from Overwatch would be appropriate to pressure extremist groups in places like Africa, where airspace is essentially uncontested.
The Air Force has moved to establish a series of armed surveillance aircraft as it has shifted its primary focus — and some of its most complex and costly fighters and bombers — away from fighting terrorist groups and violent extremist organizations in places like the Middle East. .
“The Military Overwatch program addresses a critical need for U.S. Special Operations Command to conduct a broad range of operations globally in support of the National Defense Strategy,” Special Operations Commander General Richard Clark said in a statement. “This robust and sustainable platform will operate in permissive environments and harsh conditions around the world to protect our special operations forces on the ground.”
SOCOM said the aircraft would be low-cost, able to take off and land in very austere fields, fly for extended periods, and support a variety of standard payloads.
Last year, Slife suggested that Military Overwatch let the AFSOC take the old and expensive U-28A Draco ISR — a rare aircraft that requires specialized equipment and training to maintain — out of the field.
But SOCOM said in a statement to the 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 such as search and rescue and humanitarian relief.
Clarke told lawmakers last year that he envisions four operational squadrons of 15 armed Overwatch aircraft, with one deployed at any time while the other three recover and are maintained at home. Clark also said a fifth squadron of 10 to 15 aircraft would be for training.
L3Harris outperformed four other competitors — Leidos, MAG Aerospace, Textron Aviation Defense and Sierra Nevada — in the Armed Overwatch contract. These five companies produced aircraft prototypes that were evaluated, primarily at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, in late 2021 and early 2022.
L3Harris said it will move quickly to convert its prototype aircraft to a production configuration, and allow SOCOM to begin testing later this year.
Six aircraft will be delivered in the first low-price initial production batch.
Under the contract, L3Harris will also provide training systems, mission planning systems, support equipment, spare parts, and logistical support.
Sky Warden is expected to reach initial operating capacity in fiscal year 2026, and full operating capacity in 2029, according to SOCOM.
Rachel Cohen contributed to this report.