AFSOC commander Slife is confident Congress will see need for new aircraft
By JIM THOMPSON | Northwest Florida Daily News, Fort Walton Beach | Published: February 19, 2021
HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — The commander of Air Force Special Operations Command headquartered at Hurlburt Field is confident that the military will be able to demonstrate to Congress the need for a new type of aircraft for special operations missions.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Jim Slife made the case for the Armed Overwatch aircraft program during an online presentation this week through the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. The institute is an independent, nonpartisan policy research organization associated with the Air Force Association, a nonprofit organization that promotes American aerospace power.
According to Slife, a new armed overwatch aircraft will fill multiple roles in Special Operations missions aimed at countering the activities of violent extremist organizations (VEOs) in remote and otherwise austere environments.
Broadly, according to Slife, an armed overwatch aircraft would have intelligence-gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, and also would provide close air support — the delivery of weapons fire, bombs and other ordinance — to ground forces.
In filling multiple roles, Slife said during Tuesday's presentation, an armed overwatch aircraft will allow special operations missions to lessen their reliance on "stacks" of different types of aircraft that must converge over a single target in counter-VEO missions.
"That model is not viable for the future," Slife said, noting the likelihood of continuing federal military budget constraints in the coming years.
"It's not cost-effective," Slife continued, adding, "We have to get out of the specialized platforms (aircraft with varying missions, from reconnaissance to ordnance delivery) stacked up for 15,000 feet over (the) target. We need to 'collapse the stack' into a smaller number of platforms."
Congress has appropriated money in the current fiscal year for research, testing, development and evaluation of an armed overwatch aircraft. But according to Slife, at the earliest it will be the next fiscal year — which begins in October of this year — before any actual aircraft purchases might begin.
Slife said AFSOC is planning "in the coming months" to hold demonstrations of armed overwatch aircraft. The aircraft will be based on existing commercially available airframes modified to meet special operations missions requirements.
According to Air Force Magazine, at least four vendors — Sierra Nevada Corp., Textron Aviation, Air Tractor and Leidos — have expressed interest in developing an armed overwatch aircraft.
Slife did not comment specifically on potential vendors for the aircraft, but he did say that AFSOC is "looking at a handful of aircraft that we think would all be capable to meet the mission requirement."
In large part, the planned upcoming demonstrations would be aimed at boosting the support of federal lawmakers for eventual procurement of the planes.
In some congressional committees, Slife said there is concern "about what it is that we envision this armed overwatch platform doing and what is the problem that we're trying to solve."
The armed overwatch aircraft initiative is developing as AFSOC's current workhorse in the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance arena — the U-28 Draco, some of which are at Hurlburt Field — is approaching the end of its service life.
In addition to concerns about the number of hours that AFSOC's U-28 Dracos have flown, it also is basically a single-role platform, Slife said.
"Our current planning shows us drawing down the U-28 as the armed overwatch platform comes online," Slife said.
An armed overwatch aircraft will be less expensive and more versatile than the U-28, and will be more capable of operating as part of a small special operations team, he added.
"I do believe that the armed overwatch program makes sense, and I look forward to continuing to talk about it with interested parties, both in the (Biden) administration and also on (Capitol Hill)," Slife said. "I think Congress is being prudent about this, but ultimately I think SOCOM (U.S. Special Operations Command, which oversees the special operations components of all American military services) will be able to demonstrate ... that this is a viable program and it's required for the future operating environment."
In other comments on potential changes with AFSOC aircraft, Slife said a demonstration of the use of a laser weapon system aboard the AC-130J Ghostrider gunship remains on track for next year. An AFSOC AC-130J is undergoing modifications to accommodate the laser weapon, Slife said.
According to reports, the laser weapon would bring a "less than lethal" component to the already formidably armed gunships. In other words, the proposed 60-kilowatt laser would be able to damage enemy equipment and to injure, but not kill, enemy combatants.
"There are a lot of variables that make employing a laser from an aircraft challenging — atmospheric dispersion, target size, heat, power," Slife said. "All those things become very, very challenging.
"When we see what the demonstrated capability actually is," Slife added, "I think we'll be in a better position to decide whether it has a place in the gunship fleet going forward. I'm looking forward to seeing the demonstration next year."
(c)2021 the Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.)
Visit the Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.) at www.nwfdailynews.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.