Defense budget imposes constraints on the acquisition of new AFSOC aircraft

HURLBURT FIELD – In a decision that could have implications for Hurlburt Field, headquarters of the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), the federal defense budget for fiscal 2022 places certain constraints on an acquisition program “armed surveillance” planes.

The United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) wants to acquire 75 of the “armed surveillance” planes to be operated by AFSOC. They would replace AFSOC’s fleet of U-28 Draco propeller-driven intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft. All U-28 planes will soon need to have new wings installed at considerable cost, according to a recent report in Air Force Magazine.

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Seventy-five armed surveillance aircraft would provide AFSOC with four squadrons of this capacity plus 15 training aircraft.

Like the U-28, the armed surveillance aircraft would be propeller-driven and would perform a variety of missions in austere environments, from intelligence gathering and reconnaissance to close air support – the delivery of weapons fire, bombs and other orders – for the ground troops.

One of the rationale for the program is that it would replace high-end aircraft, including fighter jets, which now perform many of the missions envisioned for less expensive armed surveillance aircraft.

In addition, the combination of functions in a single aircraft could eliminate the need to “stack” aircraft of different capabilities above an operational location.

The aircraft would also be within a reasonable purchase range for partner countries of the United States.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal 2022, approved by Congress in recent days and awaiting the expected signing of President Joe Biden on Tuesday, includes $ 166 million in funding for the purchase a first surveillance aircraft armed with six. This is $ 4 million less than what was requested to launch the program, but $ 17 million more than what the US Senate was initially willing to spend.

More importantly, the NDAA 2022 – the law serves as both a funding and a policy document regarding the US military – includes a provision that requires SOCOM to provide an “acquisition roadmap” to defense committees. the US House and Senate before any funding for the military surveillance program is spent or committed.

The review of the armed oversight program will also continue in another way, following a recent instruction from the Senate Armed Services Committee to the Director of Costing and Program Evaluation in the Secretary’s Office. to Defense Lloyd J. Austin III to review the program.

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This review is expected to be presented to congressional defense committees alongside Biden’s budget request for fiscal 2023, which will be made early next year.

The assessment will be required, at a minimum, to “… assess the total number of armed surveillance aircraft required to meet the requirements of special operations forces in light of changes in the position of global forces and threats. increasing for manned aircraft since the requirement for this aircraft was validated by the SOCOM commander. “

The reference to “changes in the posture of world forces” reflects the shift in national defense strategy from counterterrorism operations that have defined it over the past two decades to a “great power” orientation that sees Russia and China as the main threats. to US national security.

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Until the beginning of this year, there had been another local connection besides AFSOC to the armed surveillance program.

The Crestview facility of Vertex Aerospace, a defense aerospace company based in Madison, Mississippi, built an armed surveillance prototype in partnership with Leidos, an information technology and engineering contractor based in Reston, Virginia. , and Paramount Group USA, based in Fort Worth, Texas, which is part of a global aerospace and technology company.

The partnership’s Bronco II was one of five aircraft selected for an armed surveillance competition, but it was dropped from the review in September. Virginia-based MAG Aerospace was also eliminated from the competition earlier this year.

All five planes were being tested at Eglin Air Force Base earlier this year when the Bronco II suffered an incident on the runway. Neither Leidos nor SOCOM provided details of the incident at the time, but a photograph showed the Bronco II leaning on its left side with one wing tip close or actually touching the ground.

Remaining in the military surveillance competition – with a final decision expected in the spring, according to Aviation Week – are Kansas-based Textron Aviation Defense LLC, Texas-based L-3 Communications Integrated Systems LP, and Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corporation. .

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