U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has selected the L3Harris Technologies AT-802 Sky Warden to answer its Armed Overwatch requirement for an armed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platform. The August 1 contract covers the supply of up to 75 Sky Wardens—plus training and mission planning systems, spares, and logistics support—and has an upper ceiling of $3 billion, of which an initial $170 million has been obligated for development, test, evaluation, and procurement. The contract is due to be completed by 2029, with initial operating capability slated for 2026.
“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,” said SOCOM Commander General Richard D. Clarke. “This rugged, sustainable platform will operate in permissive environments and austere conditions around the world to safeguard our special operations forces on the ground.”
The L3Harris bid was elected from an eclectic field that included the Textron Aviation AT-6E Wolverine (an armed derivative of the T-6 trainer), the Leidos Bronco II (based on the Paramount Mwari), MAG Aerospace MC-208 Guardian (missionized Cessna Caravan), and the Sierra Nevada MC-145B Wily Coyote (an adaptation of the PZL M28 Skytruck).
Powered by a 1,600-shp Pratt & Whitney PT6A-67F engine, the Sky Warden is a two-seat adaptation of the Air Tractor AT-802 agricultural aircraft, offering a six-hour loiter at a 200-nm radius. Air Tractor will supply the aircraft in “green” condition from its Olney, Texas, factory before they undergo modification to Sky Warden standard at L3Harris’s modification center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Six aircraft are to be built under Lot 1 of low-rate initial production aircraft.
The two companies have been working together for some time on developing an armed ISR aircraft, and development of the SOCOM-specific aircraft began shortly after the announcement of the Armed Overwatch program in early 2020. The Sky Warden was unveiled in May 2021. Three prototypes have been in test for some time, of which one has been demonstrated in full mission configuration.
Key design features include an extremely rugged airframe—a legacy of its agricultural roots—to permit operations from short, unprepared strips, and the ability to be rapidly disassembled/reassembled for speed of deployment by transport aircraft. The aircraft has a strengthened wing that allows it to carry up to 6,000 pounds of ordnance.
Design of the mission system has focussed on modularity to allow the aircraft to be reconfigured with various sensors and weapons, which are carried on the underwing hardpoints. The communications system is comprehensive, including long-distance reach-back capability through satcom. A range of weaponry is envisioned for the type, with the BAE Systems APKWS 2.75-inch laser-guided rocket seen as the primary weapon. Other stores can include GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bombs, AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, and the tube-launched AGM-176A Griffin.
In SOCOM service the Sky Warden will perform many of the ISR missions flown by the Pilatus U-28A Draco, a modified PC-12 light business turboprop. However, the AT-802U also offers the ability to operate from virtually anywhere in austere operating conditions, as well as being able to deploy armament with great accuracy. It can also act as an airborne forward air control platform. It is intended for irregular warfare missions in permissive environments, with counter-terrorism operations in Africa being one cited application. L3Harris characterizes the Sky Warden's mission capabilities as "collapsing the stack" of single-role types, in which the aircraft combines the roles of several types into one platform.