KEY POINTS

  • The U.S. Special Operations to get armed surveillance aircraft
  • The precision-strike surveillance aircraft will support ground troops
  • The plane will be armed with laser-guided rockets and Hellfire missiles

The U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is planning to offer war commanders an armed surveillance aircraft option to support ground troops. The “armed overwatch” plane will come equipped with laser-guided rockets and Hellfire missiles.

Fewer ground troops will need to be sent into the enemy fire if an armed surveillance plane can locate and attack enemy fighters. Such an “armed overwatch” aircraft can act as an intelligence node capable of sending troop movements data and targeting information. Fighters often hide in buildings, requiring precision strikes. Air support in counterinsurgency combat can offer precision weapons based on advanced military tech such as a laser rangefinder.

SOCOM’s “overwatch” plane has to meet the particular needs of special ops, being able to operate in close-in coordination with supported units. This way, readily available surveillance or air attack won’t need to be called upon from fixed-runway-reliant planes that are less accessible. While A-10s, F-16s, F-22s and F-35s jet fighters can offer close-air-support, these planes require a hard, fixed runway. They are less able to operate in close proximity to special operation units on the ground located most often in uneven, rugged terrain.

There are many countries that pose an extremist threat in South and Central Africa, as well as the Middle East. For instance, armed surveillance planes are required in Libya, Somalia and Nigeria. The Pentagon seeks a less expensive aircraft for these special operation missions in order to focus other fixed-wing aircraft for missions in enemy territory armed with fighter jets or advanced air defenses.

According to Fox News, MAG’s Armed Caravan is one of the options of an “armed overwatch” aircraft for SOCOM. The converted surveillance aircraft is equipped with MAG-integrated avionics, communications, sensors and weapons systems added on a Textron-built airframe.

Three other offerings come from industry competitors, including Orbital ATKs AC-208 Eliminator, Paramount USA and Vertex Aerospace’s Bronco II Aircraft and L3’s AT-802 Longsword. The industry bidders have submitted at the moment White Papers leading to an eventual aircraft flight demonstration.

In order to meet SOCOM’s requirements, each of the competitors is offering various weapons, sensor and aircraft integration possibilities. For instance, MAG Aerospace’s Caravan offering seeks to leverage on a ready-to-produce, combat-tested variant of its Cessna C-208 ISR aircraft. Its new MC-208 Caravan involves a weaponized adaptation of the Cessna C-208 ISR, which is already operational.

The MC-208 Caravan can be equipped with up to 28 laser-guided rockets for smaller targets - Advanced Precision Kill Weapons Systems (APKWS) and up to eight Hellfire missiles. The attack aircraft designed by MAG developers is specifically configured to be able to adapt quickly its weapons and sensors to different mission requirements such as those for maneuvering surveillance operations, direct attacks or casualty evacuation. The APKWS rockets can either pinpoint exact targets or perform suppressive fire to enable troop movement.

US Special Operations troops to get 'armed overwatch' attack aircraft US Special Operations troops to get 'armed overwatch' attack aircraft Photo: U.S. Army