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Armed Overwatch Attack Aircraft

Lead photo courtesy of Sierra Nevada Corporation

By: Warren Gray

Copyright © 2021

“Follow my lead. Oh, how I need, Someone to watch over me.”

George and Ira Gershwin, 1926.

On May 14, 2021, the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), based in Tampa, Florida, awarded a total of $19.2 million in contracts for competitive, prototype demonstrations for an “Armed Overwatch” program. Five contractors each proposed a new aircraft to provide U.S. special operations forces (SOF) with a deployable, affordable, and sustainable, manned aircraft system, capable of providing close air support (CAS), armed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), strike coordination and reconnaissance (SCAR), precision-strike missions, and forward air control-airborne (FAC-A) capability for Countering-Violent, Extremist Organizations (C-VEO.) USSOCOM estimates that there will be a total, future purchase of 75 aircraft for four operational squadrons and one training squadron (about 15 aircraft each), with associated, support equipment.

The proposed, prototype aircraft are, in alphabetical order:

1. The AT-6E Wolverine, by Textron Aviation Defense, LLC, of Wichita, Kansas. The U.S. Air Force is already utilizing a single AT-6E in their Continued, Light Aircraft Experiment.

2. The AT-802USky Warden, by L3 Harris Technologies, of Waco, Texas. This is an armed, updated Air Tractor AT-802U, as was previously employed by the Department of State Air Wing (DOSAW) in South America, and is presently operated by the air forces of Egypt (AT-802U), Jordan (AT-802i), the United Arab Emirates (AT-802i), and Yemen (AT-802i.)

3. The Bronco II, by Leidos, Inc., of Reston, Virginia. This is an American derivative of the Paramount Group (of South Africa) Advanced, High-Performance, Reconnaissance Light Aircraft (AHRLAC.) While generally similar in configuration to the venerable, Rockwell OV-10D Bronco from the Vietnam War era, the Bronco II is actually a totally different aircraft.

4. The MC-145BWily Coyote, by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) of Sparks, Nevada. This is an advanced, heavily-armed version of the existing, C-145A Combat Coyote special operations aircraft, derived from the Polish-manufactured PZL Mielec M28 Skytruck, currently in service with the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC, with five remaining aircraft) and the Kenya Air Force (three examples), with future deliveries of two surplus C-145As each to Costa Rica, Estonia, and Nepal.

5. The MC-208 Guardian, by MAG Aerospace of Fairfax, Virginia. This is an improved version of the successful, AC-208B Combat Caravan already in service with the Afghan (as the AC-208B Eliminator), Iraqi, and Lebanese Air Forces, with an MX-15D FLIR sensor and two or four AGM-114R2 Hellfire II missiles.

The Armed Overwatch program is necessary in order to begin retiring the expensive and aging, U-28A Draco aircraft, an adaptation of the Pilatus PC-12, capable of operating from remote, unimproved airfields. The Dracos, first deployed in 2006, are currently nearing the end of their life cycle, and are non-standardized, and costly to maintain. These prototype evaluations began taking place at each of the contactors’ locations, as well as at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, in July 2021, and will last until approximately March 2022. They are all relatively simple, inexpensive, propeller-driven aircraft, strangely with no fixed, internal, forward-firing guns.

The AT-6EWolverine is based upon the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II two-seat, basic, pilot-trainer airframe, but has been upgraded with a 1,600-horsepower, turboprop engine, an MX-15D FLIR sensor for nocturnal targeting and laser guidance beneath the belly, the A-10CWarthog attack aircraft’s mission computer, and six weapon stations under the wings, capable of employing 13 different types of bombs, rockets, missiles, a pair of FN HMP-400 .50-caliber gun pods, or external fuel tanks for extended range.

The AT-802USky Warden is a variant of the successful, Air Tractor AT-802 crop-duster airframe, with a belly-mounted, MX-15D FLIR sensor and eight weapon stations. It’s the largest, single-engine, turboprop aircraft in the world, combat-proven, with a Titanium Dome, five-blade propeller, 1,600-horsepower engine, and is capable of carrying up to four tons of bombs, rockets, missiles, and sensor pods. Earlier AT-802Us were capable of mounting twin GAU-19/A Gatling guns on the inboard stations, but these are no longer an option on the Sky Warden, as the company specifically points out that that, “AT-802U is NOT light-attack”…but will “perform dynamic targeting (with bombs, rockets, or missiles) in demanding, operating environments.”

The Bronco II is an all-new, two-seater, attack aircraft, first flown in 2014, with a retracting, FLIR sensor and six weapon stations under the wings. Like the older OV-10 Bronco itself, this is a twin-boom, twin-tail configuration, but with a center-mounted, hybrid, turboprop/electric engine and modern, five-blade, pusher propeller in the back on the Bronco II. The original, South African AHRLAC version also mounts a Denel GI-2 20mm cannon, but there is unfortunately no fitment option for this powerful, high-velocity weapon on the Americanized, Leidos Bronco II version. It does contain two FLIR sensors, however, one for navigation, and one retracting into the belly for targeting.

The MC-208 Guardian is basically an upgrade of the Cessna AC-208B Combat Caravan, which carries just one pair of Hellfire II missiles, and the AC-208B Eliminator, which carries four Hellfire IIs. The Guardian adds a four-blade, McCauley propeller for improved thrust and quieter operation, an 867-horsepower engine, and has four external weapon stations, able to carry two rocket pods and four Hellfire II missiles, or up to eight Hellfire IIs alone. There is also a cargo capacity for up to seven passengers, in addition to the cockpit crew, to provide for either a special operations team or a rescue team, and they may parachute from the left cargo door.

I’ve intentionally saved the MC-145B Wily Coyote for last, with its catchy name inspired by the 1949 Looney Tunes cartoon series “Road Runner,” recalling the world-famous, roadrunner bird character whose arch nemesis was the always-hapless “Wile E. Coyote” character. This is the largest and most-versatile of these overwatch contenders, with twin, 1,100-horsepower engines (two engines are a lot safer than just one, if you start taking enemy ground fire), five-blade, Hartzell propellers, and an astounding, short-takeoff-and-landing (STOL) capability, able to take off in less than 1,800 feet, and land in only 1,640 feet, although it has demonstrated landing in as little as a mere 512 feet!

AFSOC received 16 C-145ACombat Coyotes in June 2009, with only five still remaining on active duty with the 6th Special Operations Squadron (“Air Commandos”) at Duke Field, Florida, tasked with foreign internal defense and combat aviation advisory duties, and most of the rest were redistributed to Kenya, Costa Rica, Estonia, and Nepal. The remaining two aircraft are owned by Sierra Nevada Corporation for testing, evaluation, and conversion to MC-145B Wily Coyote configuration. The 6th SOS also currently operates at least five Cessna 208B Grand Caravans, mostly configured for ISR (recon) duties, and one armed, AC-208B Combat Caravan (#N321NH), photographed on May 3, 2018.

In mid-2013, the 6th SOS actually experimented with a simple, side-firing, “gunship” configuration for their recently-acquired (2012) Combat Coyotes, which involved removing one of the left-side windows aft of the wing-support strut, and installing a fabricated mount for twin, GAU-18/A (Browning M2HB) heavy machine guns, or an alternate mount for a single GAU-18/A, at a 30-degree, downward angle through the window opening, crudely aimed by the C-145Apilot with a grease-pencil mark on his left window pane.

Photo by U.S. Air Force

Despite successful demonstrations, however, this “gunship” feature was not permanently adopted on the aircraft series. Instead, it remains available as about a half-dozen spare gun mounts, and now that AFSOC and USAF rescue aircraft have switched to the newer, faster-firing GAU-21/A (FN M3M) heavy machine gun for greater firepower, a single or twin-mount kit for GAU-21s should be a reasonably simple, bolt-on upgrade, if desired.

In addition, a highly-accurate, FLIR sighting system, such as the French-made, Sagem ODIN thermal-imaging, day/night, computerized gunsight, with a lead-computing, illuminated, aiming reticle, and built-in, laser rangefinder, as used on French Special Forces EC725R2Caracal helicopters and their hand-fired, 20mm Nexter SH 20 door cannon, could potentially be mounted, for precision targeting.

The brand-new, MC-145B Wily Coyote variant is a fully-armed, special operations aircraft with dual FLIR sensors (one for navigation, and a retractable model for targeting), and four external weapons stations, capable of launching up to eight AGM-114R2 Hellfire II laser-guided missiles (108 pounds each, including an 18-pound, high-explosive warhead), or four Hellfires and two seven-shot pods full of AGR-20B Advanced, Precision-Kill Weapon System II, or APKWS II) small, laser-guided missiles, with alternate provisions for dropping 206-pound, GPS-guided, GBU-39/B Small-Diameter Bombs (SDBs.)

Then, there’s the cavernous, internal cargo bay, 17 feet long, with 546 cubic feet of space, which holds a weapons operator’s station near the front, and eight reloadable, Systima Technologies common launch tubes (CLTs, just four feet long by seven inches in diameter) near the rear area. Each tube can drop a laser-guided, 35-pound, AGM-176AGriffin-A glide bomb, with a 13-pound warhead, through the cabin floor while the aircraft is still pressurized at high altitude. The new, 60-pound, Dynetics GBU-69/B Small Glide Munition (SGM), with a 36-pound warhead (literally twice the explosive power of a Hellfire missile), may also be dropped from these same pressure-sealed CLTs, and the 13-pound, Raytheon Coyote miniature, expendable, killer-drone is another tube-launched, Wily Coyote option.

These are exactly the same CLTs and weapons employed by AFSOC’s very latest, $85-million, AC-130J Ghostrider aerial gunship, except that the Ghostrider has 10 launch tubes instead of eight, ejecting their munitions tail-first through holes in the rear cargo ramp, and then the weapons instantly flip over in the aerodynamic slipstream around the aircraft, and right themselves within just 10 to 12 feet, quickly dropping nose-first, as was clearly seen in a recent, video clip by Raytheon Technologies.

The AFSOC special operations community is gradually transitioning away from the older, rocket-powered, Hellfire II and AGR-20B missiles, because they make noise when ignited and launched, their rocket plumes are visible from the ground below, and the insurgent terrorists are often able to hear or see them coming, and flee into an area such as a forest, where laser tracking for these missiles becomes extremely difficult.

By comparison, the Griffin-A or GBU-69/B glide bombs can be stealthily ejected at night from higher altitudes, with an operational range of at least 12 to 22 miles, totally unseen and unheard from below, and taking the terrorists completely by surprise.

Even gun armament is beginning to fall out of favor, especially now that the AC-130J Ghostrider has been experiencing persistent, accuracy and calibration problems with its side-firing, GAU-23/A 30mm auto-cannon for the past several years, and vibration problems affecting the ammunition racks for its M102 105mm howitzer, often causing the loaded rounds to drop to the cabin floor and break apart. The use of cannon of any caliber is loud, with visible muzzle flashes, and requires flying at much lower altitudes, where AFSOC aircraft may become vulnerable to enemy, heat-seeking missiles or unguided rockets. So, the most-preferred, modern, “gunship” weapons at present are the small, silent, and deadly-accurate, AGM-176A and GBU-69/BSGM glide bombs, quietly ejected one at a time over the target areas.

Finally, the MC-145B has a large, tailgate ramp that may be lowered in-flight to deploy up to about nine special operations paratroopers, or an ADM-160B/C Miniature, Air-Launched Decoy (MALD, but not really “miniature,” at nearly 10 feet long and 250 pounds) or MALD-J radar jammer, or a brand-new, DARPA/Dynetics X-61A Gremlin drone (14 feet long, and 1,500 pounds.) So, the Wily Coyote clearly holds significant advantages over the other four Armed Overwatch contenders in terms of weapons capability, other payloads, and overall versatility of operations.

USSOCOM commander General Richard D. Clarke and AFSOC commander Lieutenant General James C. “Jim” Slife have both stated that the U.S. Armed Forces are currently preparing for a potential conflict against a major adversary such as Russia or China, and are moving away from more than two decades of regional, counterinsurgency wars against violent, extremist groups. However, the Armed Overwatch program is still quite essential for combatting terrorism in relatively permissive environments such as Africa, where hostile forces are often poorly armed.

In particular, Kenya has an urgent need for overwatch aircraft to replace the armed (a sensitive and controversial subject) AFSOC U-28A Dracos deployed there. Al-Shabaab (“the Youth”) terrorists maintain a stronghold in the dense, Boni Forest, and all along the Somali border region, and U.S. and Kenyan Special Forces teams frequently require an armed overwatch aircraft on station nearby for on-scene, intelligence collection or close air support.

The Kenya Air Force currently operates 17 aging F-5E Tiger II fighters, two Cessna 208B unarmed, ISR/reconnaissance aircraft, six AH-1F Cobra attack helicopters (donated by Jordan), 45 MD-500 light attack helicopters (some with side-mounted machine guns), including at least six brand-new, camouflaged, MD-530F Cayuse Warrior gunships (of 12 requested), and three unarmed C-145A Combat Coyote special operations aircraft against these brutal terrorists.

They have been ably assisted by various, U.S. special operations forces (approximately 200 military personal, and 100 Department of Defense [DoD] civilians and contractors), including U.S. Army Special Forces teams, Navy SEALs, Marine Raiders, and various AFSOC and Army special operations aircraft, at Camp Simba and Manda Bay Airfield, training and advising Kenyan Special Forces (armed with Mk. 17 SCAR-H carbines in 7.62mm, and Glock-30 pistols in .45 ACP), as well as fighting regional terrorism along the nearby border.

But al-Shabaab has launched more than 900 attacks into Kenya over the past three and a half years, including a vicious attack at Manda Bay Airfield on January 5, 2020, that destroyed an American Beechcraft King Air 350 reconnaissance aircraft, damaged five more aircraft, including an AFSOC DHC-8-202 Dash 8 ISR asset, and killed three American DoD contractors. The Pentagon carried out 63 MQ-9A Reaper Block 5 ER (Extended Range) drone strikes in neighboring Somalia alone last year, clearly indicative of the increasing, al-Shabaab terrorist activity in the volatile region.

The Kenya Air Force tentatively ordered 12 Air Tractor AT-802L Longsword attack aircraft, a very-heavily-armed variant of the AT-802U, with 10 weapon stations, from L3 Technologies in June 2017, but has since missed two deadlines to complete the agreement due to internal, political upheaval and a competing offer from Iomax for similar, AT-802i Archangel aircraft, so the AT-802L Longsword arrangement remains in perpetual limbo for the time being. However, Kenya has recently received three surplus C-145A Combat Coyote special operations aircraft from the United States, and is already operating them, having been fully trained for at least three months by AFSOC pilots from the 6th Special Operations Squadron.

So, given that the primary focus of the new, Armed Overwatch program is expected to be for Africa in general, and Kenya in particular, and the Kenya Air Force has experienced great difficulty with AT-802L Longsword (an AT-802U derivative) acquisition, and is already operating three C-145A Combat Coyotes, the most-logical selection for a highly-successful, Armed Overwatch aircraft would certainly seem to be the MC-145B Wily Coyote, but reason and common sense do not always prevail when it comes to U.S. government decisions, especially now, so we’ll just have to watch the upcoming, evaluation process to see how it all unfolds in the coming months.

Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.

 
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