SOCOM Orders Cropduster Attack Planes from L3Harris Technologies
The contract, which could grow to 75 aircraft, marks a major victory for proponents of prop-driven close air support.
U.S. Special Operations Command has chosen L3Harris Technologies to supply up to 75 attack planes based on a cropduster aircraft in a deal that could be worth $3 billion.
It’s a huge win for the the country’s sixth-largest defense contractor which in recent years has looked to grow from a Florida-based electronics supplier to a lead contractor of high-end weapons and a disruptor among its larger peers.
“This rugged, sustainable platform will operate in permissive environments and austere conditions around the world to safeguard our Special Operations Forces on the ground,” USSOCOM Commander Gen. Richard Clarke said in an emailed statement.
L3Harris’ aircraft is a weaponized Air Tractor AT-802, a turboprop agricultural aircraft that typically flies around 150 mph. The initial contract awarded Monday is worth $170 million, but could reach $3 billion by 2029 if all of the options are exercised.
“We decided to take a clean-sheet approach to this program to align with the requirements,” L3Harris CEO Chris Kubasik said during the company’s quarterly earnings call last week. “[The] team has spent a fair amount of money in [research and development] and capital. We've had lots of demos that have gone well that we think position us in a good place to potentially win this program.”
The goal of the plane “to procure a low-cost, reliable, rugged, multi-role, small- to medium-size aircraft system with multiple capabilities currently performed by specialized platforms such as close air support, precision strike, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance,” SOCOM said in a statement.
SOCOM will begin testing the plane, called Sky Warden, this year, L3Harris said. The company plans to add 100 employees to build the aircraft in a 90,000-square-foot factory in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
For more than a decade, the Air Force and Navy have each had numerous failed efforts to field small turboprops that could loiter above the battlefield and support troops on the ground. Their advocates argue that such planes could have saved the millions of dollars in fuel and wear and tear on larger, high-performance fighters and bombers that were used during two decades of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Air Force leaders always valued such planes below new stealth fighters and bombers. In recent years, SOCOM took over, and put money behind the effort, which it calls Armed Overwatch.
“This award would not have been possible without the Air Force’s contributions of expertise and our industry partners demonstration of the art-of-the-possible for rapid integration of weapons and sensors on proven aircraft,” SOCOM acquisition executive Jim Smith, said in a statement. “The Armed Overwatch program will allow us to rapidly field an affordable, sustainable aircraft with the flexibility to grow and adapt with our SOF aviators’ missions in support of SOF ground elements.”
SOCOM’s choice is a major defeat for Textron’s Beechcraft, which has spent millions of dollars over the past decade developing an attack version of the T-6 trainer that the company hasn’t been able to sell in large numbers. The Sky Warden was also selected over the MC-145B offered by Sierra Nevada.