US Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, announced Friday it has awarded contracts totaling $19.2 million to five companies to produce prototype aircraft for its Armed Overwatch program.
In a notice published on the US federal contracting website, SOCOM said that the awards will go to Leidos Inc. of Reston, Virginia; MAG Aerospace of Fairfax, Virginia; Textron Aviation Defense of Wichita, Kansas; L-3 Communications Integrated Systems of Waco, Texas; and Sierra Nevada Corp. of Sparks, Nevada.
The Armed Overwatch program is Air Force Special Operations Command’s effort to field a series of flexible, fixed-wing aircraft that could be deployed to austere regions and require only a light logistical footprint to operate.
AFSOC commander Lt. Gen. Jim Slife told reporters in February he hopes Armed Overwatch aircraft could keep pressure on violent extremist organizations in places such as some parts of Africa, where extremist groups operate but the airspace is largely uncontested.
Slife said then that Armed Overwatch planes could conduct both intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, as well as close-air support and precision strike missions to support ground troops.
In a previous announcement on the program in April 2020, SOCOM said it planned to buy about 75 Armed Overwatch planes.
SOCOM said Friday that the five awardees will work on and demonstrate their prototypes primarily at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida; that process should be complete by March 2022.
The aircraft being considered include Leidos’ Bronco II, MAG Aerospace’s MC-208 Guardian, Textron’s AT-6E Wolverine, L-3’s AT-802U Sky Warden, and Sierra Nevada’s MC-145B Wily Coyote.
The Air Force in recent years looked at Textron’s AT-6 as part of its experiment with light attack aircraft; in 2019, it said it expects to buy two or three of them. The first AT-6E was delivered to the service in February.
Leidos announced in May 2020 that it had developed the Bronco II to meet SOCOM’s needs and compete for the Armed Overwatch program. In March, MAG Aerospace announced the launch of the MC-208, which is based on the C-208 Cessna.
L-3 announced the single-engine turboprop Sky Warden earlier this month.
Sierra Nevada has not made any public announcements about the MC-145B. But for more than a decade, AFSOC has flown a variant called the C-145A Combat Coyote, primarily for combat air adviser missions.
Slife said AFSOC hopes that, as it brings on new planes for Armed Overwatch that can collect intelligence, it will be able to pull its costly U-28A Draco aircraft out of the field.
The Draco is a small aircraft adapted from the Pilatus PC-12, which is capable of landing in small, rough airfields and flying in remote areas.
But the Draco is also an expensive plane to keep in the air. Because there are so few of them and they are not standard aircraft, it requires specialized equipment, maintenance and training to sustain them. This takes airmen away from bigger missions, driving up the cost of maintenance.
“At the end of the day, the Armed Overwatch platform will be less expensive to operate, [and] it will be more versatile than the U-28,” Slife said in February.
This year marks the 15th anniversary of Marine Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC).
Created on February 24, 2006, MARSOC is the Marine Corps’ component of US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and is composed of the Marine Raider Regiment, Marine Raider Support Group, and Marine Raider Training Center.
Marine Raiders, who trace their roots to World War II, primarily focus on direct action, such as ambushes and raids, as well as special reconnaissance and foreign internal defense – the training and advising of partner forces – but they can also conduct unconventional warfare (which primarily means supporting proxy forces) and counterterrorism operations, all with a varying degree of effectiveness.
MARSOC was created to fill what the Pentagon prudently saw as a future gap in special-operations forces. From the start, the US military effort in the Global War on Terror indicated that it would heavily rely on special-operations units.
Established in 1987, US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) brought together special-operations units such as the Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and Air Force Special Tactics Squadrons. Each service was invited to join with its special-operations units, but the Marine Corps turned down the offer.
The Marines already had some special-operations units, namely Marine Recon and Force Recon, which focused on special reconnaissance and direct action. They were considered special-operations units by everyone but the Corps, which saw them as specialized infantry rather than commandos, a reflection of the “Every Marine is special” mindset prevalent in the Marine Corps since its inception.
SOCOM and the Marine Corps went their separate ways until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Having seen the tactical and strategic value of special-operations units in the early days of the Global War on Terror, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pushed for more commandos.
The Marine Corps begrudgingly created the Marine Corps Special Operations Command Detachment (Det One) in late 2002 as a study unit to see if Marines could fill special-operations roles.
However, since Reconnaissance Marines were already widely seen as a special-operations unit, or its Marine equivalent, the Corps’ decision to set up Det One for further study, rather than incorporating Marines into SOCOM right away, is viewed by many as an attempt to stall the process until Pentagon leadership moved on or lost interest.
“The early [Det One] years were tough. In the beginning, we didn’t have jack shit. No weapons, no ammo, no ranges, no mission, no nothing. Both the Corps and SOCOM shunned us, while the SEALs [Naval Special Warfare Command] wanted to control us. We were the red-headed stepchild,” a former Reconnaissance Marine and Marine Raider told Insider.
Neither SOCOM nor the Marine Corps wanted a Marine special-operations command, but for different reasons.
SOCOM believed that the Marine Corps had gotten its chance to “operate” back in 1987; the Marine Corps believed it could do its own special-operations thing as good or even better than SOCOM and didn’t want to lose quality Marines.
“What we did have, however, was a solid bunch of guys, about 100 operators and support Marines. All of them were as solid as they come because the leadership had handpicked them. We’re talking senior Recon men with years of experience and numerous deployments under their belts. Same goes for the support and intel guys. Top-notch Marines on their respective fields who could probably outperform grunts on basic infantry skills because they went through much of our training,” the former Recon Marine and Raider added.
Always faithful, always forward
Det One was a success and led to the creation of MARSOC in 2006. The 1st and 2nd Force Recon Battalions were disbanded, with most of their operators going to the newly established 1st and 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalions, with a third Raider battalion added later.
During the Global War on Terror, MARSOC contributed to the fight, but as the wars concluded or drew down, Marine Raiders have found themselves competing for missions and funds with units such as the Army Special Forces Regiment or the SEAL Teams.
Since MARSOC is the new kid on the block, it tends to be relegated to less active areas of operations – ironically, however, these regions can get quite busy, and Marine Raiders have participated in some neat operations, such the response to al-Shabab’s attack on the Kenyan military base at Manda Bay in January 2020.
Some have called for MARSOC’s deactivation, citing the Corps’ limited resources and demands elsewhere. For now, it seems that the 15-year-old MARSOC will make it into adulthood. Judging from the past, that future may be rocky.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.
The US military’s special-operations units have fought around the world over the past two decades, a period during which their successes have been marred by scandals and misconduct.
Now, with a new subcommittee on the House Armed Services Committee, lawmakers hope to exercise greater oversight over those shadowy operations and other emerging challenges.
“The landscape has changed in terms of what threats are out there and what the capabilities of our near-peer competitors are,” Rep. Ruben Gallego told Insider.
Gallego, the highest-ranking person of color on the Armed Services Committee, a Marine veteran, and progressive Democrat, will chair the new subcommittee.
“We’re right now having to be able to continue with the traditional roles [of the] military but then also having to figure out how to deal with hybrid warfare,” Gallego added.
Gallego and committee chairman Rep. Adam Smith announced the new subcommittee, officially called the Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations, on February 3.
ISO emerges from a split of the Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee, along with the Subcommittee on Cyber, Innovative Technologies, and Information Systems.
“A lot of the work in warfare that’s going to be coming up is going to be found in these two subcommittees,” Gallego said.
‘Very serious and sticky situations’
The ISO subcommittee is responsible for military and national intelligence, countering weapons of mass destruction, counterterrorism, and special-operations forces. Special operations and military intelligence are likely to get the most attention.
“They both feed into each other” and “into the bigger portfolio in terms of preparing us for the great-power competition,” Gallego said. “We’re going to not neglect our actions in other areas, but making sure that those two areas are primed and ready to go, I think, is going to be really important.”
Demand has grown for more oversight of military operations conducted under the banner of counterterrorism. Special-operations forces, such as the Navy SEALs, are a minority among troops overseas but carry out many of those missions.
The lack of clarity about what they’re doing and the legal justification for it has been a major point of criticism.
“It definitely is a problem,” Gallego said of that opacity. “They are special operators, but they are still under the purview of civilian authority, and I also don’t appreciate that they’ve been essentially used to … go around Congress’s ability to wage war.”
“So we are going to bring that under control as much as possible. We want to see more transparency when it comes to their usage,” Gallego said. “At the same time, we also want to make sure that we guard their usage, because their consistent rotations, I think, [are] actually debilitating towards their effectiveness.”
Lawmakers have expressed concern about that high operational tempo. Like other troops, special operators face increasing mental and physical strain from frequent deployments. That strain, plaudits heaped upon those forces, and a lack of accountability have been blamed for repeated cases of misconduct – especially among SEALs.
Those units’ high profile may help recruiting, Gallego said, but it can also make policymakers “more likely to use them in very serious and sticky situations that they don’t necessarily want ‘normal’ forces in.”
In January, the Pentagon announced an evaluation of whether US Special Operations Command, which oversees those forces, and US Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, implemented programs to reduce potential violations of the laws of war and whether violations that did occur were reported.
Policymakers have a habit of deploying those forces without public debate, hoping that “they never get ‘caught’ or create situations where then they have to answer to the public,” Gallego said.
In that respect, the Pentagon’s review “will be extremely important,” Gallego added, pointing to Congress’ inquiries after the October 2017 ambush in Niger that killed four US Army Special Forces members. (That incident prompted a restructuring of special-operations leadership to allow more civilian oversight, which was implemented by the Trump administration and is now being reviewed by the Biden administration.)
“Members of Congress were surprised that we had military in Niger,” Gallego said. “The fact that it is that pervasive, abuse of our military, that even people in the Armed Services Committee did not know that we were actively involved there is a problem.”
‘Toe-to-toe with any military’
While special operations will be a priority for the subcommittee, challenges related to intelligence-gathering, cyber intrusions, and disinformation loom large after the 2016 and 2020 elections.
In a joint statement announcing the new subcommittee, Gallego and Smith singled out “the disruptive impact of disinformation attacks” among the “unprecedented threats” the US faces from “adversaries and competitors.”
Disinformation is a particular challenge because it spans “the civilian-military divide” and is created by both domestic and international actors, Gallego said.
“We are going to have to address it. How we address it with the assets that we have currently on deck, I think, is going to be really important,” Gallego added. “We have the capability. We have the talent. We don’t necessarily have the authorities nor the true understanding of how deep and problematic this is.”
Gallego mentioned the Defense Intelligence Agency as a partner for the subcommittee. DIA is one of 18 organizations in the US intelligence community, the size of which has been a source of internal confusion and external criticism.
The community’s size isn’t the problem but rather its responsiveness, Gallego said.
“If you’re big and you don’t move, that’s a problem. If you’re small and you don’t move, that’s still a problem,” Gallego added. “So I’d love to be able to work with all these different elements and make sure that they are interoperable, they’re talking to each other, and they actually want to have action and operations, instead of just informing the military … and us what’s going on.”
The Trump administration resisted assessments from those agencies about the role foreign influence operations had in the 2016 election. Disputes about those assessments persist, and domestic actors, including Republican lawmakers, continue to invoke baseless allegations about the integrity of the 2020 election.
Gallego said he didn’t see that as an obstacle to working with Republicans on matters before his subcommittee.
“I think that was very much a Trump administration-led problem,” Gallego told Insider. “Now that Trump has gone, I think that is no longer an issue, and I think people want to work together across party lines to make sure we take care of that serious threat.”
The new subcommittee was announced a day before the Pentagon announced a review of the US military’s “footprint, resources, strategy, and missions” around the world, which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said will inform his advice to President Joe Biden “about how we best allocate military forces in pursuit of national interests.”
The relevance of that review extends to information warfare and emerging technologies, Gallego told Insider.
“I’m sure we can go toe-to-toe with any military when it comes to man-to-man, hand-to-hand combat, but are we going to be able to win the hacking war of the next 20 years? Are we going to be able to win the quantum-computing competition that we may be already losing right now? What happens if China turns the corner when it comes to AI?” Gallego said. “These are the things that would have to have a full review.”