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L3Harris Sky Warden attack plane wins SOCOM’s Armed Overwatch program

L3 Harris could produce up to 75 AT-802U Sky Warden aircraft to replace US Special Operations Command’s U-28 Draco.

WASHINGTON: L3Harris has won the Armed Overwatch program and will build up to 75 AT-802U Sky Warden attack aircraft for US Special Operations Command.

The Pentagon announced an initial $170 million award to L3Harris on Monday evening, for a contract that could be worth up to $3 billion if all options are executed for aircraft, training systems, spares and mission support.

“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,” SOCOM Commander Gen. Richard Clarke said in a statement. “This rugged, sustainable platform will operate in permissive environments and austere conditions around the world to safeguard our Special Operations Forces on the ground.”

SOCOM expects the Sky Warden to reach initial operational capability in 2026, becoming fully operational in 2029.

L3Harris came out on top against a crowded field, including Sierra Nevada Corp., MAG Aerospace, Leidos and Textron Aviation — all of which delivered prototypes to SOCOM for demonstrations at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., in 2021. Through those experiments, SOCOM sought to evaluate which non-developmental aircraft could best replace the U-28 Draco to perform the close air support and reconnaissance missions.

Luke Savoie, president of L3Harris’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sector, said the company took a “bottom up” approach to the Armed Overwatch program, initially using model-based systems engineering to determine which commercial aircraft could best meet SOCOM’s requirements. The company announced in May 2021 that it had chosen to upgrade Air Tractor’s AT-802 crop duster with militarized mission systems, sensors and ωɛλρσɳs — creating a platform it called Sky Warden.

“Our going-in rule was don’t make assumptions and don’t try to make something fit into this,” Savoie told Breaking Defense in an interview Tuesday.

While the company sought to deliver a prototype to SOCOM that was ready for production, it continued to evolve its Sky Warden design over the past two years based on input from special operators during exercises such as Bold Quest. “We never stopped work on the prototype,” Savoie said, adding that the company has continued to expand the aircraft’s flight envelope, improve its software and add new ωɛλρσɳs such as Hellfire missiles.

L3Harris will now modify its Sky Warden prototype to meet the production configuration, with the intent to have the aircraft ready for ωɛλρσɳ system testing in six months, the company said in a news release. Production of the first lot of six Sky Warden aircraft will begin in 2023 at L3Harris’ modification center in Tulsa, Okla.

While it takes only 60 days of touch labor time for the AT-802 to be transformed into Sky Warden, Savoie said the delivery schedule for the first production-configuration aircraft will depend on supply chain availability. However, despite supply chain problems across the aviation industry, Savoie said he was confident L3Harris would be able to stay on schedule, although he declined to say when the first aircraft would be delivered.


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