Recon Crop Duster: Special Ops Selects Modified AT-802U Platform for Armed Overwatch

U.S. Special Operations Command has ordered 75 Sky Wardens to be built on an Air Tractor AT-802U platform.

U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has selected Sky Warden, a heavily modified crop duster platform purpose-built by L3Harris Technologies in collaboration with Air Tractor, for its Armed Overwatch program, it announced.

SOCOM’s initial purchase award is valued up to $170 million for 75 Sky Warden aircraft, with the indefinite quantity, indefinite delivery contract award worth up to $3 billion.

For agricultural aviators, Sky Warden boasts a familiar silhouette. It’s based on the manned, fixed-wing Air Tractor AT-802U platform, a rugged airframe used in crop dusting and firefighting. Its name is an homage to two special operations combat aircraft—the Douglas A-1 Skyraider that provided pivotal close air support during the Vietnam War and the modern-day U-28 Draco that provides intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) support from a modified Pilatus PC-12 platform under the callsign “Warden,” L3Harris said.

The light aircraft is slated to replace the Air Force’s fleet of more than two dozen U-28 aircraft.

About the Aircraft

Outfitted with a Pratt & Whitney PT6A-67F powerplant, the aircraft is the largest single-engine turboprop available, according to Air Tractor. The AT-802 has a 6,000 pound combat payload capacity and is purpose-built for ISR Strike missions. 

The AT-802U is ideal during irregular warfare operations, according to the L3Harris and Air Tractor Sky Warden team. 

“Air Tractor aircraft were developed precisely to operate in austere environments with limited infrastructure,” Jim Hirsch, president of Air Tractor Inc., said in a statement. “Our aircraft are built to offer unparalleled flexibility, essential ingredients for special mission operators.”

Sky Warden features cockpit and engine armor, ALE-47 countermeasure dispensers on its wings, and self-sealing fuel tanks. Inside the cockpit are a hands-on throttle control and stick, a dedicated mission display, multi-sensor HD overlay and control, and a modular open systems architecture that allows for rapid integration of new technology. It can loiter for six hours at 200 nm combat radius.

Armed Overwatch

It’s also available, according to the Sky Warden team. The aircraft is production ready, with delivery in less than a calendar year.

“Sky Warden will bring powerful and affordable close air support, precision strike, armed ISR, and command and control capabilities directly to special operations forces in the battlefield,” Sean Stackley, president of integrated mission systems at L3Harris, said in a statement. “We are ready now to begin work on this modern, multi-mission system for the SOCOM Armed Overwatch program.”

The first production lot of six Armed Overwatch variants of the aircraft will begin at the Air Tractor manufacturing facility in Olney, Texas, with modifications beginning next year at the L3Harris modification center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“Armed Overwatch answers a critical need for U.S. Special Operations Command to conduct a wide range of operations globally in support of the National Defense Strategy,” SOCOM Commander Gen. Richard D. Clarke said in a statement, Air Force Magazine reported. “This rugged, sustainable platform will operate in permissive environments and austere conditions around the world to safeguard our Special Operations Forces on the ground.”

SOCOM’s Sky Warden is expected to reach operational capability by 2026, with full operation three years later, Breaking Defense reported.


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