The Air Tractor AT-800 series is famous in the agricultural world. It’s a large, powerful, efficient workhorse that can do the job of several smaller aircraft (elsewhere, it’s famous for being voiced by Dane Cook in the animated movie “Planes”). Mainly detailed to spray pesticides on commercial fields or retardant on wildfires, the platform boasts low stall speeds, short takeoff distance, high range, and massive potential payload. While these are all major factors in the AT’s success flying over forests and cornfields, these very same capabilities have caught the attention of US Special Operations for their needs on battlefields. SOCOM just spent two decades in Iraq and Afghanistan looking for a bridge between drones and traditional Close Air Support (CAS) platforms. It seems Ol’ Dusty (or rather the L3 Harris Technologies warfighting variant named “SkyWarden”) is who they’re going with, after some significant upgrades.
Why a crop duster? As mentioned above, the things that make the AT-800 platform a great agricultural tool are exactly the sorts of things SOCOM wants to support small teams in the field. Drones excel at long term observation, with high range and loiter time, low stall speeds, but generally carry small, specific payloads, and may not have the punch or flexibility needed. Standard CAS platforms like the A-10, and various ground-attack models of fighter jets can deliver incredibly punishing volumes of fire, in all 31 flavors, but have to move much faster, can’t stay on station for as long, and with all that speed, may more difficulty hitting small, unarmored targets with no radar cross-section. Compare the A-10 Warthog’s 1.7hr loiter time, with the AT 802U’s 10+ hours (and thats without drop tanks), while carrying over 1 ton of payload. Not only that, it can do so much more quietly than the ‘hog’s twin turbofan engines could ever allow.
While it’s true there’s no 30mm rotary cannon on an 802U, they can haul an impressive array of weaponry including a pair of GAU 19/A 3-barrel gatlings, dual M260 7-shot rocket pods, Mavericks, 500lb bombs, and more on between 9-15 wing and fuselage mounted hardpoints. Combine that punch with ground-to-air comms, modern sensor and surveillance packages with real-time encrypted video downlink and SatCom, armored cockpits, and the ability to operate from improvised positions, and takeoff and land on dirt roads, and you’ve got the makings for an A-Team’s best friend.
If you’re still not sold, consider that USSOUTHCOM has been using them with apparent success against drug cartels in Central and South America for years, and several smaller militaries have deployed the 802U, or developments thereof. Whether you are into or not, SOCOM expects to start seeing its $3 Billion turn into combat aircraft starting sometime in 2026, with the 75 planned aircraft to be built in L3 Harris’ Tulsa Oklahoma facility.