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Special Ops Plane Started as a Crop Duster

The plane's history offers perspective on the benefits of not trying to re-invent the wheel.

The Department of Defense’s Special Operations Command (SOCOM) recently announced that an initial contract worth $170 million was awarded to L3Harris Technologies and Air Tractor for the AT-802U Sky Warden single-engine prop plane. The aircraft will be used by operators such as Delta Force and the Navy SEALs.

The deal is interesting for a number of reasons. First, although it contains provisions for up to 75 aircraft that could make the contract worth upwards of $3 billion, the initial cost for six planes is about the equivalent of two F-35 fighter jets. So, it’s basically the DoD’s version of value pack buy.

Secondly, the history of the plane offers some perspective on the benefits of not trying to re-invent the wheel. An earlier iteration of the aircraft served as a sort of crop duster, albeit not the kind that first comes to mind. 

Going back about 30 years, the two-seat aircraft’s design made it perfect for missions targeting coca plants in South America. Coca, of course, carries an infamous psychoactive alkaloid called cocaine.

Over time, not surprisingly, those attempting to grow the coca weren’t too happy about these crop dusters killing their prized plants, and began shooting back at the planes. This led to lightweight armor and weaponry being added to the Sky Warden’s design.

Circling back to present needs, SOCOM sought an affordable, crewed aircraft with the ability to support surveillance and reconnaissance in “permissive environments”. 

Translating the military speak, the ideal plane didn’t need to survive a Top Gun-esque dogfight at 40,000’, but rather provide a modular aircraft design that’s easy to fly, has the ability to take off and land on improvised runways, and can accommodate a variety of weapon systems. 

Basically, it needs to emulate the get-in and get-out missions of the highly trained troops who will be using it.

This last feature has definitely been addressed, with the new Sky Warden’s wings designed to carry 500-pound bombs, small missiles, 50-caliber machines guns or 20 mm cannons. In total, it can handle an armored payload of over 8,000 pounds. 

L3Harris expects production to begin in 2023.

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