The growing need for a modern aircraft platform for special forces
Historically, Air Commandos have taken old and discarded aircraft and modified them for their needs. The original American volunteer ‘Flying Tigers’ in Burma, precursors to the 1st Air Commando Group, were the first to successfully use outdated fighters and airlifters for their unique purposes. In the early 2000s, with the need for additional eyes over the target, the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) searched airplane-trader magazines and bought a fleet of Pilatus PC-12s from rich doctors and rock stars and built the U-28, which has been an incredibly successful intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform that has controlled the air battle over most of the biggest terrorist targets for the last decade. As our conventional airpower prepares for the near peer competition, SOF will quickly find itself in a deficit of dedicated close air support to meet the needs of its operations. In order to fill that deficit proactively and not reactively, it’s time to build a platform that meets the needs of our SOF operators from scratch. New aircraft with the right tools to provide just what the operator needs on the ground, wherever they find themselves. If we don’t do it now, we will have to react aggressively later to meet the need and likely come up with something less capable and more expensive.
Armed Overwatch (AO) is the program being proposed by USSOCOM this year with a request to begin procurement in FY21. The concept meets the needs of isolated small teams of SOF working in remote areas around the world. The focus of the National Defense Strategy (NDS) rightly targets Great Power influence, but the likelihood for armed conflict in these scenarios will take place through proxies, militias, and partners of China and Russia, and to some extent Iran. These fringe areas, where Great Powers will compete for influence are, in many cases, the same areas SOF is already working to keep pressure on terrorist organizations. The NDS keeps SOF operating in the Middle East, Africa, South America and increasingly in the Pacific rim, and the workload will only increase for forces that have been the most heavily deployed in the military for the last two decades.
Conventional airpower, which has been fully engaged in the air over Afghanistan, Iraq, and other areas in the region will be brought home to rebuild readiness and focus on peer competition. We cannot afford to keep fifth generation fighters over top of SOF scattered in small teams across huge theaters like Africa. These aircraft must be honed to meet the threat of modern militaries, and with the small fleets we will have, their deployments must be carefully metered.
Meanwhile, Special Operators will be engaged in areas with a fairly permissive air environment, and will rely on airpower that can provide precision strike, close air support (CAS), strike coordination and reconnaissance (SCAR), and armed ISR. The AO concept articulates a platform that can do each of these tasks well, and it must be able to shift from one to another quickly, even on the same sortie. It must be an aircraft that can operate from very remote areas, from unprepared surfaces, and on fuels that are readily available. The footprint for munitions and maintenance must be minimal. It should be an aircraft that is affordable to our partners and simple to operate and maintain. Ideally, we should be able to throw it in the back of a C-17 and move it across the world quickly. There are actually several great choices in the air now that could meet this requirement.
Some will argue that the A-10 can already provide this capability, but as great an aircraft as it has been for 40 years, and as much as any of the authors would have loved to always have a four-ship overhead all the time, it is not logistically possible. Even if it was, the venerable Hog still couldn’t meet the ISR and SCAR parts of the mission, and the 30mm cannon would be overkill in many situations, increasing the risk of collateral damage. Most importantly, in addition to being 40 years old, the A-10 still needs a significant airfield to operate from with a relatively heavy support package for maintenance and armament.
Imagine if the small SOF element in Niger in 2017, who were ambushed and lost four American soldiers, had a two-ship of AO aircraft based with them. The results could have been much different. Imagine the reach of these small teams with routinely deployed AO detachments with them. This is a SOF air concept that will aid in the development of greater partnerships with allies in areas where the Chinese and Russians are pushing for influence. It is a concept that can be reasonably and affordably transferred to partners, and will be much more useful to them in providing their own defense rather than trying to acquire more expensive and complex fighters.
Congress must act now to ensure that an Armed Overwatch program begins next year, starting with a fly-off this fall as USSOCOM is planning to do. USSOCOM’s programmed replacement of the U-28 and MC-12 with the AO selected platform must begin in FY21 to align with the shift of conventional air toward peer competition. This is a modest investment that will have an inordinate return for the forces that are most likely to continue be involved in this nation’s armed conflict. It’s time to get them an aircraft purpose built for the mission and do it now before risk is incurred for the SOF operators on the ground.
Lieutenant General (Retired) John F. Mulholland served as the Chief, Office of Military Cooperation-Kuwait, as Commanding General, United States Army Special Forces Command (Airborne), as Deputy Commanding General, Joint Special Operations Command, as Commanding General, Special Operations Command Central, and as the Commanding General, United States Army Special Operations Command.
Lt General (Ret.) Tom Trask transitioned from the Air Force in 2017 after 33 years of service, retiring as the Vice Commander of United States Special Operations Command. He went on to fly Rescue and Special Operations helicopters accumulating more than 3200 hours and over 50 combat missions during operations in Operation Just Cause in Panama, Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait, and numerous operations in the Balkans, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Mark “Droopy” Clark, MajGen USMC (Retired) received his first assignment as a Captain/Major was as a MH-53J PAVELOW pilot with the 20th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla. Later he was assigned to Theater Special Operations Command (Central), Combined Special Operations Task Force South in Afghanistan, and later to Combined Forces Special Operations Command Central in Qatar. His most recent assignment with special operations was as the commander for Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command.
Rear Adm. Daniel “Brian” Hendrickson received his commission from the United States Naval Academy in May 1987. Hendrickson’s tours in Naval Special Warfare include assignments to SEAL Team 1, SEAL Team 3, Naval Special Warfare Support Activity 1, Naval Special Warfare Unit 4, Naval Special Warfare Group 1, Naval Special Warfare Group 10 and Naval Special Warfare Command. His service overseas includes Operations Restore Hope, Desert Shield, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.