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US Government Accountability Office questions SOCOM Armed Overwatch fleet number

In July 2022 US Special Operations Command selected L3Harris Technologies' Sky Warden for its Armed Overwatch programme. The capability was based on the Air Tractor AT-802U. (L3 Harris)

US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) may be planning to purchase too many aircraft under the Armed Overwatch programme, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a 14 December report.

Although SOCOM intends to purchase 75 L3Harris OA-1K Sky Wardens – the aircraft that won the Armed Overwatch competition – through fiscal year (FY) 2029, the GAO found that studies by SOCOM and other entities do not support such a large fleet.

Two SOCOM studies, conducted annually to ensure that the command's requirements fit its needs, “did not support the need for SOCOM's planned fleet size of 75 Armed Overwatch aircraft”, said the GAO. A third study, conducted in August 2022, found that SOCOM “estimated an operational need less than the number of aircraft SOCOM had approved to be acquired” earlier in the year.

“In addition to not justifying an acquisition target of 75 aircraft, each report made assumptions about the Armed Overwatch aircraft that do not reflect its intended capabilities or employment,” the GAO continued. “Specifically, both reports relied on assumptions regarding the capabilities that an Armed Overwatch aircraft would provide and the tactics, techniques, and procedures under which it would operate when deployed despite [Air Force Special Operations Command: AFSOC] not having developed them.”

Additional studies by the US Department of Defense and think-tank RAND found that other aircraft already in the fleet, notably the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle, could perform many of the same missions either wholly or in part, though they did not examine the 75-strong Armed Overwatch fleet.

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