L3 Harris’ AT-802U Sky Warden won the US Special Operations Command’s Armed Overwatch program in August 2022. (L3Harris)

WASHINGTON: L3Harris has won the Armed Overwatch program and will build up to 75 AT-802U Sky Warden attack aircraft for the US Special Operations Command.

The Pentagon announced Monday evening an initial award of $170 million to L3Harris, for a contract that could be worth up to $3 billion if all options are executed for aircraft, training systems, spare parts and mission support.

“Armed Overwatch fulfills a critical need for U.S. Special Operations Command to conduct a wide range of operations on a global scale in support of national defense strategy,” said SOCOM Commander, the General Richard Clarke, in a statement. “This rugged and durable platform will operate in permissive environments and austere conditions around the world to protect our special operations forces in the field.”

SOCOM expects the Sky Warden to reach initial operational capability in 2026 and become fully operational in 2029.

L3Harris won against a crowded field including Sierra Nevada Corp., MAG Aerospace, Leidos and Textron Aviation – all of which delivered prototypes to SOCOM for demonstrations at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida in 2021. Through these experiments, SOCOM sought to assess which non-development aircraft could best replace the U-28 Draco to perform close air support and reconnaissance missions.

RELATED: SOCOM’s Armed Overwatch to Perform Grueling New Test

Luke Savoie, president of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance at L3Harris, said the company took a “bottom-up” approach to the Armed Overwatch program, initially using model-based systems engineering to determine which aircraft commercial could best meet SOCOM’s requirements. The company announced in May 2021 that it had chosen to upgrade Air Tractor’s AT-802 dust collector with weaponized mission systems, sensors and weapons, creating a platform called Sky Warden.

“Our rule of thumb was not to make assumptions and not try to plug something into that,” Savoie told Breaking Defense in an interview Tuesday.

As the company sought to deliver a prototype to SOCOM that was ready for production, it continued to evolve its Sky Warden design over the past two years based on input from special operators during exercises such as Bold Quest. “We never stopped working on the prototype,” Savoie said, adding that the company continued to expand the aircraft’s flight range, improve its software and add new weapons such as Hellfire missiles.

L3Harris will now modify its Sky Warden prototype to meet the production configuration, with the aim of preparing the aircraft for weapon system testing in six months, the company said in a press release. Production of the first batch of six Sky Warden aircraft will begin in 2023 at the L3Harris Modification Center in Tulsa, Okla.

While it only takes 60 days of touch-working time for the AT-802 to be transformed into a Sky Warden, Savoie said the delivery schedule for the first aircraft in production configuration will depend on the availability of the production line. ‘supply. However, despite supply chain issues in the aviation industry, Savoie said he was confident L3Harris would be able to meet the schedule, although he declined to say when the first aircraft would be delivered.

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