AT-802U Trainers Arrive To Prepare USAF Aviators For A Murky Light Attack Future

U.S. Air Force special operations aviators are now training on a pair of Air Tractor AT-802U aircraft ahead of the expected arrival of the first operational OA-1K Sky Warden light attack planes later this year. This also comes amid growing questions about the exact plans for the OA-1K, which is based on AT-802U, as the entire U.S. military shifts away from the counter-insurgency and other low-intensity operations the Sky Warden was designed for toward preparing for potential high-end conflicts.

The two AT-802Us arrived at Hurlburt Field in Florida back in June, Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) announced yesterday. In 2022, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) declared the Sky Warden, which L3Harris had put forward in partnership with Air Tractor, as the winner of its Armed Overwatch program competition. SOCOM currently expects to buy 62 OA-1Ks, down from the original planned fleet size of 75 aircraft, which AFSOC will operate. Ostensibly, the OA-1K is set to supplant AFSOC’s U-28A Draco and Beechcraft King Air-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft, at least in the near term.

The two AT-802U trainers at Hurlburt Field in Florida, USAF

“These aircraft will be used to train test pilots and initial cadre in a representative tail wheel aircraft in preparation for the missionized Armed Overwatch (OA-1K) variant,” according to an official release.

The AT-802U, a multi-mission aircraft based on Air Tractor’s popular AT-802 crop duster, and the OA-1K variant are both two-seat, single-turboprop tail-draggers. AFSOC’s current inventory does not include any other tail wheel aircraft, which have certain unique training requirements compared to types with tricycle landing gear.

The OA-1K variant can carry up to 6,000 pounds of weapons, including precision-guided missiles and bombs, and other stores, such as sensor pods with electro-optical and infrared video cameras, under its wings. Air Tractor has said in the past that AT-802U can be fitted with up to eight underwing pylons, but the Sky Warden version has been typically shown with six. L3Harris has said in the past that the aircraft will be able to loiter over an area up to 200 nautical miles away for as much as six hours with a typical combat load.

In addition, the planes have a “robust suite of radios and datalinks providing multiple means for line-of-sight (LOS) and beyond line-of-sight (BLOS) communications,” according to L3Harris.

“The OA-1K is a low-cost, reliable, multirole, small-to-medium size aircraft system to support geographically isolated special operations personnel,” according to AFSOC’s release yesterday about the AT-802U trainers touching down. “The aircraft will perform close air support, precision strike, armed intelligence, and surveillance and reconnaissance in austere and permissive environments.”

The OA-1K Sky Warden. L3Harris

SOCOM’s Armed Overwatch program and the resulting OA-1K are a culmination of sorts of a slew of light attack aircraft projects and experiments conducted by various branches of the U.S. military, with and without focuses on special operations missions, dating back nearly two decades. A consistent area of interest throughout all of these efforts was finding a lower-cost alternative to using tactical combat jets, bombers, and other aircraft to provide close air support, armed overwatch, and ISR support, in the kinds of permissive airspace that dominated the Global War on Terror era. This, in turn, would free up the other aircraft for more demanding and/or higher-priority missions and just reduce costly wear and tear on those fleets from constant flying.

In addition, light attack aircraft could be deployed with a minimum footprint to sites, even remote or austere ones, closer to designated operating areas, which they could then get to and from without the need for tanker support. This would also help reduce the need to use more expensive to operate fast jets and other aircraft to conduct short-endurance sorties.

At the same time, questions have emerged in the past year or so about how the OA-1Ks might be employed in the future, as well as about their exact place in SOCOM and AFSOC’s broader special operations aviation plans. The U.S. military is in the midst of a major pivot toward planning for high-end operations against near-peer competitors with a particular focus on preparing for a potential major fight in the Pacific against China.

“Studies completed in 2021 and 2022 did not justify SOCOM’s planned fleet size of 75 [OA-1K] aircraft, nor did four other related studies conducted by external entities that were published from April 2021 through March 2023,” according to a report the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a Congressional watchdog, published in December of last year. Furthermore, “SOCOM has not reevaluated its needs despite changes to operational missions (such as the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan) and force structure reductions under consideration.”

GAO’s report also disclosed the existence of a 2022 report from the Department of Defense’s Office of the Inspector General that concluded the “proposed Armed Overwatch aircraft capabilities do not match the combined capabilities of existing SOF ISR aircraft (including the U-28 and MC-12 [King Airs] capabilities that SOCOM plans to divest), nor did the Armed Overwatch aircraft meet all SOF ISR requirements.”

A U-28A Draco. USAF

SOCOM subsequently said the reduction in planned OA-1K purchases from 75 down to 62 was driven by “a resource-constrained position and is not a response to the GAO’s recommendations on the program,” but also that the Armed Overwatch force structure requirements were under review, according to a story from Air & Space Forces Magazine in March.

At the annual SOF Week conference in May, SOCOM officials also disputed the characterization of the OA-1K as a replacement for the U-28A and King Air ISR aircraft, despite prior statements to that effect, and said they were exploring requirements for direct successors to those aircraft. It is still true that AFSOC plans to use resources freed up from the divestment of the U-28As and King Airs to support the fielding of the Sky Warden in the immediate future.

An MC-12W Liberty, an ISR-configured Beechcraft King Air variant, in front with a U-28A behind. Air National Guard Andrew LaMoreaux

The OA-1K is not the only part of AFSOC’s fleets to come under scrutiny amid the larger shift toward preparing for a high-end conflict in the Pacific region. The command is notably taking a hard look at current and future plans for its AC-130J Ghostrider gunships for many of the same reasons. A project to integrate a high-power laser-directed energy weapon onto a Ghostrider has already been axed and the aircraft could also lose their iconic 105mm howitzers in the future.

It is worth noting that, while the U.S. military’s future outlook appears to increasingly view assets like the OA-1K as a low-priority, if not completely unnecessary, the desire to pivot to the Pacific is in many ways out of its hands. The ongoing crisis in and around the Red Sea is a prime example of the very real need to be prepared to respond to contingencies elsewhere. The prospect of new lower-intensity conflicts where the Sky Wardens could be very useful is also not going away and the time it has taken to move forward on acquiring these aircraft underscores the value of having them on hand now.

The arrival of the AT-802U trainers at Hurlburt does show that the Armed Overwatch program is still moving ahead, but what AFSOC’s light attack future will actually look like in the end seems increasingly uncertain.

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