Little information available on Eglin AFB incident with 'armed overwatch' aircraft
EGLIN AFB — A prototype aircraft in contention to became a new workhorse for the U.S. Special Operations Command suffered a runway mishap earlier this month.
The incident involved one of the five prototype aircraft involved in the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) "armed overwatch" competition. The mishap occurred while the aircraft was parked on an Eglin Air Force Base runway undergoing maintenance, but details of the incident remained sketchy Friday as weeks of testing of the five aircraft was scheduled to wrap up.
The July 9 mishap involved a single-engine turboprop aircraft dubbed the Bronco II, an existing light-attack plane being modified by a partnership of defense contractors — Virginia-based Leidos Inc., Texas-headquartered Paramount Group USA and Vertex Aerospace, a Mississippi-based aerospace defense contractor with facilities in Crestview — to meet requirements for a new Special Operations aircraft.
If the Bronco II is chosen as SOCOM's "armed overwatch" aircraft, it would be built at Vertex Aerospace's plant in Crestview. In a June news release, Vertex President and CEO Ed Boyington said company "employees will assemble the aircraft and provide the final systems support integration and launch the Bronco II for customer delivery from our Crestview ... facility."
Broadly, the "armed overwatch" aircraft eventually chosen by the Special Operations Command, to be flown by Hurlburt Field-headquartered Air Force Special Operations Command airmen, will be involved in missions to counter activities of violent extremist organizations in remote and otherwise austere environments.
More specifically, SOCOM also will be looking at the candidate aircraft's ability to provide firing support to group troops, as well as their range, communications capabilities beyond line-of-sight, and autopilot capabilities.
SOCOM referred questions about the July 9 incident with the Bronco II to Leidos, Inc. A company spokesman, after providing initial indications that the company would respond to an emailed list of questions from the Daily News, later declined and referred the newspaper back to the military for comment.
A Leidos spokesman did, however, speak with Aviation Week magazine some days prior to the Daily News inquiry, saying that the Bronco II suffered minor damage “during a preventative maintenance action.”
A photograph published by Aviation Week, purportedly taken after the incident, shows the aircraft leaning to its left side, with the left side of its tail boom touching the runway. That photograph would support some speculation that the incident involved its left-side landing gear.
“We are working with the customer to complete the necessary inspection and continue showcasing the advanced capabilities of this aircraft,” the Leidos spokesperson told Aviation Week, adding that the aircraft was expected to be flying again within a few days of the incident.
In other sparse reporting on the incident, a July 16 item in defenceWeb, an Africa-based defense news website, noted that the Bronco II "is still in the running for the United States Special Operations Command’s (SOCOM’s) Armed Overwatch competition."
The defenceWeb story notes that the incident came "after several successful flights" of the aircraft.
In addition to the Leidos partnership offering in the "armed overwatch" competition, the other four companies whose aircraft were being tested at Eglin are MAG Aerospace, also based in Virginia (MAG Aerospace has a presence in Fort Walton Beach with its Technology Integration and Support Center); Kansas-headquartered Textron Aviation Defense LLC; Texas-based L-3 Communications Integrated Systems L.P.; and the Nevada-headquartered Sierra Nevada Corp.
SOCOM is looking at an armed overwatch aircraft as an alternative to the current Special Operations practice of using "stacks" of aircraft with differing capabilities above targeted areas. Combining a number of functions in a single aircraft will provide SOCOM with the capabilities it needs during a time of constraints on federal defense expenditures, AFSOC commander Lt. Gen. Jim Slife said during a recent presentation to a Washington, D.C.-based aerospace think tank.
Ultimately, SOCOM is interested in acquiring 75 "armed overwatch" aircraft, organized into four squadrons, with acquisition beginning in the upcoming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
The program has attracted significant attention, both pro and con, as Congress has begun to debate the proposed defense budget for next year.
For instance, in a subcommittee hearing of the House Armed Services Committee earlier this week, Army Gen. Richard D. Clarke, commander of SOCOM, heard one committee member say, "It's important to have a combat platform that is at your disposal, especially when it doesn't put other service members at risk and delivers the firepower that you need."
Another committee member, however, told Clarke that he was concerned about the speed with which SOCOM was moving into the armed overwatch program, suggesting that the initiative "deserves a little less love than it's getting, and a little more scrutiny than it's getting."
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