Several weeks ago I listened to a new podcast from the Modern War Institute’s Irregular Warfare Podcast – Armed Overwatch: Airpower in Irregular Warfare – Past, Present and Future. I decided to do a bit more research and this is what I came up with however, I highly recommend actually listening to the podcast it is truly excellent.
In the ever-evolving global competitions, whether we are fighting terrorists in Afghanistan or seeking influence in remote African nations, Special Operations Command (SOCOM) continually seeks low-cost / high impact technology that can be leveraged to gain an advantage over a wide range of conflicts. To accomplish these disparate missions SOCOM has looked to the past to find solutions for tomorrow in the Armed Overwatch program. Armed Overwatch can provide Special Operation Forces (SOF) that operate in diverse austere environments the flexibility to conduct Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), Close Air Support (CAS) and potentially, Casualty Evacuation (CASEVAC) in areas that cannot be adequately served by the much more expensive jet-fighters of today and the limited capabilities provided by our drone fleets. While the concept for Armed Overwatch is not new, the ability to retrofit flexible low-cost aircraft with emerging technology and precision weapons can offer an advantage that Special Operations must leverage as we move on from the relatively confined battle spaces of Iraq and Afghanistan to the Great Power Competition that could see forces engaged in low-intensity conflict all over the globe.
The concept of overwatch is nothing new and simply put, is the supervision of one unit by another while one is firing and moving. However, while simple, that definition does not adequately define the importance for the overwatch concept whose definition can vary greatly and is best described as:
“the state of one small unit or military vehicle supporting another unit, while they are executing fire and movement tactics. An overwatching, or supporting unit has taken a position where it can observe the terrain ahead, especially likely enemy positions. This allows it to provide effective covering fire for advancing friendly units. The term overwatch originates in U.S. military doctrine. An ideal overwatch position provides cover for the unit, and unobstructed lines of fire. It may be on a height of ground or at the top of a ridge, where a vehicle may be able to adopt a hull-down position…
In modern warfare little can compare to the tactical advantages gained by utilizing aircraft in this manner. Whether fixed or rotary wing, the advantages gained by aircraft in support of units maneuvering on the ground is both proven and effective. The concept, to some extent, has been employed since the invention of aircraft itself. So why is Armed Overwatch an emerging technology? As defined by Yasmin Tadjdeh in National Defense, armed overwatch is:
envisioned as a commercially available, multi-role airplane that will contribute to Special Operations Command’s counterterrorism mission at lower cost than high-end platforms.
Tadjeh continues with this quote from SOCOM Commander Gen. Richard Clarke:
This program will provide cost-effective, multipurpose aircraft to support operations in remote, austere areas for the foreseeable future,” he said in his prepared testimony for a March hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Lt. Gen. James Slife with the Airforce Special Operations Command (AFSOC), one of the champions of the program describes armed overwatch in Defense News as:
“a reconfigurable, multi-mission aircraft that will conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions and perform close air support of ground forces. The aircraft, which will be flown only in uncontested environments such as in Africa, will be able to operate in austere conditions using a very minimal logistics footprint.
Because the desired platforms are turboprops, they do not require improved airstrips, are relatively simple to operate and are more cost effective that the majority of platforms Special Operations Forces have become accustomed to using in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Which leads us to the question of why? Why change now?
Again, according to Slife,
“The whole reason we’re doing this is because the national defense strategy talks about the need to do cost effective [counter-violent extremist organization] operations, cost effective irregular warfare,” Slife said. “So, the operating environment where we currently operate U-28s is about the same operating environment where we would envision operating armed overwatch platforms.”
The currently utilized U-28A Draco fixed-wing aircraft specializes in:
“airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in support of humanitarian operations, search and rescue, and special operations missions.”
“military modification to include tactical communications capabilities, aircraft survivability equipment, electro-optical sensors, and advanced navigation systems. The advanced radio-communications suite is capable of establishing U.S. Department of Defense and NATO data-links, delivering full-motion video, and transmitting secure voice communications. The U-28A benefits from outstanding reliability and performance, and the aircraft is capable of operating from short runways and semi-prepared surfaces.”
However, it is not an armed platform capable of suppressive fire should special operations forces require it and according to Slife:
“The Armed Overwatch Program seeks to replace the U-28A “Draco” aircraft, which specializes in airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) but also does so with a twist. The new aircraft would be able to more than just provide special operations troops with key intelligence. Indeed, the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) wants an aircraft that in addition to the ISR capability, it will be able to provide close air support and precision strike options.”
“The armed overwatch platform will be less expensive to operate [than the U-28],” Slife said. “It will be more versatile than the U-28, and frankly, we’ll have greater capacity to operate in those small disaggregated kinds of teams.”
Some argue that putting the lives of pilots in a manned platform is not necessary since we currently have drone capability. But the armed overwatch program can provide something that the MQ-9 Reaper (RPA) drone cannot.
“The only thing that’s unmanned about the RPA business is the cockpit,” Slife said. “There is a tremendous manpower that goes behind that. And when you look at where we intend to operate these platforms and so forth … it needs to be a light footprint. It needs to be able to operate in remote areas in small … disaggregated formations. And the MQ-9 is a challenging airplane from an infrastructure perspective.”
There is also an immediate need as demonstrated by the events in Niger several years ago. According to John Venable, senior research fellow for defense policy at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense:
“You don’t have to look very far to find the need. We lost several special ops folks … [a few] years ago in Africa, because there was no air support,” he said, referring to an ambush in 2017 near the village of Tongo Tongo, Niger, that left four American and four local soldiers dead after taking enemy fire from ISIS affiliated militants.
“You don’t want to put aircraft and aircrew at risk unnecessarily, but when you have Americans [on the ground] that are doing their job and they are in harm’s way, you’re going to put everything you need” in the air to protect them, Venable said. “That’s what airmen do and that’s what we need to have the ability to do.”
Armed overwatch is a frontier technology because it applies state of the art technology on the frontier of the battlefield that special operations forces typically operate in. Bob Wilson, a retired Army Special Forces colonel who commanded special operations forces in combat in Afghanistan and in complex missions across Africa, Central Asia, and Latin America, with the Military Times states:
“Neither the Air Force nor SOCOM currently has appropriate aircraft to meet the current and expected operational requirements for [remote, austere locations around the globe]. As a result of this shortfall, SOF units are often unable to accomplish critical tasks and cannot exploit fleeting opportunities when our adversaries are vulnerable. Additionally, as the Niger ambush clearly illustrates, this capability gap can put SOF units at greater risk when they are conducting sensitive activities in austere environments.”
Retired Lieutenant General Thomas Trask and Dr. James Kiras, who teaches at the US Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, discussed in a recent Irregular Warfare Podcast how air power has often played a critical role in irregular warfare and special operations by providing support in both Iraq and Afghanistan. However, they state that with the:
“transition to more distributed operations across the globe, it will no longer be possible to provide the level of responsive support to which the US military has become accustomed. The capabilities and inventory of current aviation platforms are ill suited for the task in hand. Instead, the US military must be prepared to take a step back from its pursuit of continuous technological improvement and look to platforms—manned or unmanned—that are more versatile and robust.”
There is no doubt that Special Operations forces will continue to deploy to remote, austere environments. Whether their mission is continued support for counterinsurgency, counterterrorism or a specific role in the larger great power competitions of peer-to-peer conflict; SOF will require low-cost / high impact technology that is both independent and flexible enough to meet the mission requirements. Armed overwatch can be a critical tool in Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, Close Air Support and potentially, Casualty Evacuation that our current assets do not possess. Our ability to retrofit low-cost turboprop airplanes with state-of-the-art technology and deploy that technology to the frontiers of the battlefield will be critical in both current and future operations as the competition for resources within the military budget increase. The flexibility provided by platforms such as these will be both cost effective and critical in support for the mission as the larger general-purpose forces continue to draw back and SOF forces are more widely dispersed.