In October of 2017, an infamous ambush near the village of Tongo Tongo, Niger, left four American and four local soldiers dead after taking enemy fire from militants from the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.
The tragic event was "emblematic of the type of environment where we have people on the ground that need to be supported," said Lt. Gen. James C. "Jim" Slife, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command.
AFSOC is now pursuing a new fixed-wing aircraft program, known as Armed Overwatch, to provide a capability that could change the outcome of that type of ambush scenario in the future, he said.
The command is looking for a deployable and sustainable manned aircraft system that can fulfill close-air support; precision strike; and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions in austere and permissive environments, according to a SOCOM industry day announcement released in February.
While SOCOM has the acquisition authority for the aircraft, Air Force Special Operations Command is drafting and providing input into the program's requirements, Slife said during a media roundtable at the Air Force Association's annual Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida.
"They may change that, they may modify it," he said. But direction from leadership, including SOCOM Commander Gen. Richard Clarke, "up to this point has been to really kind of take the cue from AFSOC."
The command has been pondering what is required to fill capability gaps, Slife said. "What SOCOM needs is a platform that it can operate from austere regions and provide surveillance and precision fires in support of small disaggregated ground teams."
Special Operations Command has been toying with the idea of an Armed Overwatch platform for a decade or so, Slife said, but the concept really started to gain steam over the past three years.
"When Gen. Clarke took command in the early spring of last year, 2019, this was one of the things that he brought to the table," he said.
Driving SOCOM's vision for the aircraft is great power competition with Russia and China, which the National Defense Strategy identified as top threats, he said. High-end platforms that have aided special operators in counter-insurgency missions may be needed to take on advanced adversaries.
"As the larger joint force pivots towards great power competition and so forth, ... we probably won't enjoy the same support necessarily for those small disaggregated SOF teams because there will be higher...