How L3Harris Created the New US Special Operators Plane to Hunt and Attack Terrorists – DefenseNews.com | Gmx Pharm

WASHINGTON – The US Special Operations Command’s new armed Overwatch aircraft will be able to carry multiple weapon configurations and modular sensors that can be quickly swapped out and disassembled for deployment in hours.

Manufactured by L3Harris Technologies and aircraft manufacturer Air Tractor, the AT-802U Sky Warden is SOCOM’s choice for a robust aircraft capable of conducting reconnaissance, surveillance and reconnaissance, close air support and strike missions against terrorist groups in austere locations such as parts of Africa.

In an interview with Defense News on Tuesday, Luke Savoie, president of L3Harris Technologies’ ISR sector, said the company’s use of model-based engineering and modular open systems has allowed it to create a low-cost aircraft tailored to the To meet the requirements of special operators the field.

SOCOM wants armed Overwatch aircraft so it can continue to pressure extremist groups like Somalia’s al-Shabab in areas of largely uncontested airspace, while the Air Force shifts its primary focus and more sophisticated fighters and bombers to potential high-end threats in Europe and Asia .

Armed Overwatch aircraft could also take over at least some of the missions of the U-28 Draco ISR aircraft, which is outdated and expensive to maintain.

L3Harris’ indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract to deliver up to 75 Sky Wardens will be valued at up to $3 billion with an initial contract value of $170 million.

The trust factor

L3Harris began work on what would eventually become the Sky Warden in March 2020, shortly after SOCOM published its Armed Overwatch tender. Savoie said the company started “without preconceived notions.”

Rather than starting with a list of must-haves for the aircraft, as traditional requirements-based engineering might dictate, Savoie the designers at L3Harris used model-based systems engineering to consider why a Sky Warden pilot would need certain skills and the best type of crew might need these needs.

L3Harris also wanted to ensure functions were tightly integrated to reduce crew workload and take advantage of automation whenever possible, he said.

“In special operations, it matters,” Savoie said. “The guy on the ground isn’t looking for points [a] card, on a tablet or something on his wrist. He’s looking for reassurance that someone who speaks in his ear knows what he’s talking about and doesn’t need to question it.”

That prompted L3Harris to refine the kind of sensors and software this plane would need and how it would integrate the systems, he said. The company spoke to those who have already done this mission to make the Sky Warden as user-friendly as possible.

“End users…are constantly reminding us, ‘I like looking through my visor, I don’t like looking at my arm, at a tablet,'” said Savoie, a former U-28 and AC-130 pilot.

Users also stressed the importance of instantaneous, zero-latency communication for an aircraft conducting an armed Overwatch mission, Savoie said, as well as the need to streamline the information presented to the pilot.

To build the airframe that would become Sky Warden, L3Harris teamed up with Air Tractor, who typically build farming and firefighting aircraft.

The company had worked with Air Tractor on previous programs, such as surveillance aircraft for Jordan in the mid-2010s and other projects integrating sensors, weapons and software. But, Savoie said, with its added attack capabilities, Sky Warden is much more complicated than Jordan’s surveillance planes.

L3Harris has created three prototype Sky Wardens. One was fully proselytized, with all the modifications to do everything an operational Overwatch armed aircraft needed to do. The company sent this prototype to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida last summer to be evaluated by SOCOM. Four other companies also demonstrated their prototypes to SOCOM in 2021 and early 2022.

A second prototype was built for L3Harris’ own flight testing and to qualify the aircraft’s autopilot. L3Harris also built a third Sky Warden prototype to test and certify the aircraft’s reinforced high-load wing to ensure it can carry up to 6,000 pounds of external ordnance.

Savoie said Sky Warden could easily be prepared for use on a C-17 or C-5 mobility aircraft. The plane can be disassembled and loaded onto a cargo plane in about 7 hours, then reassembled in about the same time once it reaches its destination, he said. L3Harris brought a Sky Warden to the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in May in Tampa, Florida where he demonstrated how quickly the disassembly and reassembly process can take place.

“It’s a pretty compact shape,” Savoie said.

The unit cost of a Sky Warden will vary based on configuration and capabilities, Savoie said, but declined to give a number.

L3Harris’ contract also includes the provision of training systems, mission planning systems, ancillary equipment, spare parts and logistical support.

Air tractor aircraft have previously carried weapons such as 50-caliber cannons and 7.62-miniguns, Savoie said. The Sky Warden could be armed with six weapon stations, with the 2.75-inch Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) laser-guided missile being its primary weapon.

Sky Warden could also carry GBU-12 Paveway laser-guided bombs, Savoie said, and L3Harris is close to carrying the AGM-114 Hellfire missile. And Sky Warden has the infrastructure to handle up to eight popular launch tube-based weapons like the AGM-176A Griffin, he said.

Construction of the Sky Wardens will begin at Air Tractor’s facility in Olney, Texas. Once these airframes are built, they will be shipped to L3Harris’ Mod Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where work will be done to modify them for the Armed Overwatch mission.

Savoie said L3Harris will manufacture parts for the modifications at its Greenville, Texas facility. L3Harris will also perform software work for the aircraft at its Nashville, Tennessee facility and maintenance activities will be conducted in Rockwall, Texas. Engineering work will be performed at the L3 sites in Waco, Greenville and Plano, Texas. Various other L3Harris sites will provide sensor, radio and weapons clearance capabilities, Savoie said.

Stephen Losey is an air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Prior to that, he covered US Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for The Air Force Times.

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