Military Capabilities

Pentagon budget 2021: US light attack aircraft requirement moves from USAF to USSOCOM

12 February 2020

The A-29 Super Tucano is one of several platforms that would satisfy the new Armed Overwatch requirement of the USSOCOM. Source: US Air Force

The US Air Force's (USAF's) plans to field a light attack aircraft for counterinsurgency (COIN) operations have now shifted to the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) instead.

According to the Department of Defense's (DoD) fiscal year (FY) 2021 budget documents released on 10 February, the USSOCOM is requesting deployable and sustainable "Armed Overwatch" aircraft to provide its special operations forces (SOF) with close air support (CAS); precision strike; and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. A recently issued request for information (RFI) noted that 75 fixed-wing aircraft are being sought for this requirement.

While the RFI did not name potential platforms, the likely candidates will include the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC)-Embraer A-29 Super Tucano, Textron AT-6B Wolverine, Textron Scorpion, IOMAX Archangel, Air Tractor AT-802U, and L3 Technologies-Air Tractor AT-802L Longsword.

The confirmation in the budget documents that the USSOCOM is looking to field this light attack aircraft capability effectively brings to an end a somewhat disjointed effort by the USAF to develop the same capability for itself and for allied air forces.

The USAF's efforts to field a light attack capability are long and protracted, dating back to a 2007 white paper that called for the establishment of a wing of aircraft dedicated to fighting 'irregular warfare'. This paper envisaged a force of helicopters, heavy propeller transports, and light turboprop strike aircraft to provide "assistance to partner nations across the full spectrum in development and employing indigenous air and space power to defeat irregular internal threats".

In October 2009 the USAF issued a request for information (RFI) for its Light Air Support (LAS) requirement for both itself and the then-fledgling Afghan Air Force. The USAF dropped its own requirement shortly after, instead supplying A-29 Super Tucanos to Afghanistan.

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