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Special Operations Forces: DOD Should Slow Acquisition of Armed Overwatch Aircraft Until It Conducts Needed Analysis

GAO-24-106283 Published: Dec 14, 2023. Publicly Released: Dec 14, 2023.
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Fast Facts

The Department of Defense is buying 75 new airplanes to support special operations missions. DOD plans to acquire the planes in stages through FY 2029.

Special operations forces are supposed to analyze their operational requirements to ensure that purchases like these planes meet mission needs. But this analysis wasn't completed before DOD decided to buy the planes. DOD's special operations mission requirements have also changed in recent years, and it hasn't evaluated if it still needs all 75 planes.

We recommended that DOD slow the acquisition of new planes until it analyzes how many it needs to meet mission requirements.

DOD is planning to buy 75 new planes for special operations missions currently supported by aircraft like the U-28, below.

U-28 plane on a runway with a blue sky in the background.

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What GAO Found

U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has entered into a contract to acquire 75 Armed Overwatch aircraft through fiscal year (FY) 2029. According to Air Force command officials, this acquisition will be personnel neutral after SOCOM divests two classes of existing aircraft. As of October 2023, SOCOM was in year 2 of its 7-year contract and officials said the command expected to have purchased 28 aircraft by April 2024.

Armed Overwatch Aircraft

SOCOM is required to determine its force structure requirements using classified guidance and processes established in Department of Defense (DOD) guidance. SOCOM officials said the command completes force structure analysis annually. GAO found, however, that studies completed in 2021 and 2022 did not justify SOCOM's planned fleet size of 75 aircraft, nor did four other related studies conducted by external entities that were published from April 2021 through March 2023. GAO found that SOCOM is limited in its ability to justify this acquisition target for three reasons:

  1. Documentation indicates that SOCOM decided on the size of the fleet before conducting the required analyses.
  2. SOCOM did not assess how changes in the aircraft's capabilities could affect the number needed for operations. Specifically, the aircraft selected is more capable than the one modeled. SOCOM is also determining how to adapt the aircraft to meet intelligence requirements that may affect demand.
  3. SOCOM has not reevaluated its needs despite changes to operational missions (such as the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan) and force structure reductions under consideration.

Because of these reasons SOCOM is also not well-positioned to justify its acquisition timeline. According to SOCOM, changes to the acquisition timeline might affect the cost per aircraft. By ensuring that it thoroughly assesses its needs against adjustments in the cost per aircraft, SOCOM will be better able to make informed decisions and efficiently use the more than $2.2 billion it estimates that it will spend for the program through FY 2028.

Why GAO Did This Study

SOCOM is responsible for acquiring a new aircraft called Armed Overwatch and plans to invest over $2 billion in aircraft through FY 2029. These aircraft are being resourced by the divestment of two existing aircraft that, among other things, collect intelligence. Congress has expressed concerns about the program, delaying the reprogramming of funds and requiring DOD to provide information about its plans.

House Report 117-118, accompanying a bill for the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2022, includes a provision for GAO to review the Armed Overwatch program. This is the first of two GAO reports. GAO (1) describes the number of Armed Overwatch aircraft and projected expenditures for the program through fiscal year 2029, and (2) evaluates SOCOM's use of required analysis when determining the number of aircraft to acquire.

GAO reviewed SOCOM's plans for FY 2022–2029 and compared Armed Overwatch-related analyses with DOD guidance. GAO also interviewed SOCOM and other officials.


GAO is making two recommendations, including that DOD (1) analyze the number of Armed Overwatch aircraft needed using valid assumptions and taking into account changes in SOCOM's operating environment, and (2) limit the acquisition of the aircraft until SOCOM completes the analysis. DOD concurred with the first recommendation and partially concurred with the second, describing its need for training aircraft.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command, analyzes the number of Armed Overwatch aircraft needed in SOCOM's force structure in accordance with the priorities established in classified guidance and DOD Directive 8260.05 and provide this analysis to Congress. The analysis should be documented, informed by modeling demand for this aircraft using valid assumptions about its capabilities and tactics, techniques, and procedures, and take into account changes in SOCOM's operating environment that may alter demand for the aircraft. (Recommendation 1)
DOD concurred with the recommendation. As of April 2024, DOD was in the process of assessing the number of planes it would need but stated it would likely not complete the analysis until fiscal year 2025.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command, starting in fiscal year 2025, limits the acquisition of the Armed Overwatch aircraft to the minimum rate needed to maintain the aircraft production line and support operational test and evaluation until SOCOM completes the recommended analysis. (Recommendation 2)
DOD partially concurred with the recommendation. DOD stated that in addition to considering production line stability and operational test and evaluation, SOCOM would factor into the analysis the need to have sufficient aircraft to train an initial cadre of qualified aircrew and establish a training pipeline that supports the initial operational capability timeline. As of April 2024, DOD was in the process of assessing the number of planes it would need but stated it would likely not complete this analysis until fiscal year 2025.

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