The U.S. Air Force has announced its intention to transfer the MC-12W Liberty from Air Combat Command to both Air Force Special Operations Command and the Army in its budget proposal for the new fiscal year.
The Liberty is a small, manned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft. The aircraft’s primary sensors are an infrared full-motion video camera and a system designed to collect signals intelligence. The Air Force does not disclose exactly what the latter system does, but it is safe to assume that it can do things like locate the source of enemy radio transmissions and maybe even listen in on them. All of this is mounted on a variant of the Beechcraft King Air twin-engined turboprop, which has become practically an industry standard for these type of aircraft over the last forty years.
This announcement is not particularly new, having been outlined in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the last fiscal year. If the plan is approved, however, it could potentially affect a number of other systems. It also shows a move away from certain procurement trends that the U.S. military has come to rely on in the past decade.
Responding quickly to the needs of commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan had been a driving focus behind this method of buying weapon systems and services. The first step in the process would be for a so-called “Urgent Operational Needs Statements” to be submitted for approval up the chain of command. If the request progressed far enough, Pentagon budget officials would then try and find money to purchase a limited amount of whatever piece of equipment or service might fit its requirements. Even if this happened, though, there was no guarantee that whatever so-called “Quick Reaction Capability” (QRC) was bought in that one particular instance would necessarily be bought ever again.
Project Liberty was very much a product of this “crisis” procurement model. To meet the improvised explosive device threat, particularly in Iraq, U.S. Central Command found itself continually looking for more manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft. At the time, the Army had made headlines, both within the military and in American domestic media, by providing persistent surveillance in Iraq with similar aircraft. The Army’s Task Force Observe, Detect, Identify, and Neutralize (ODIN) had been credited with numerous successes against the bomb makers.
At the urging of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the Air Force started buying King Airs in 2008 to convert into manned spy planes to help out in Iraq. The famed Big Safari program office, which has worked to rapidly field specialized aircraft for the Air Force for decades, was given the job of converting the planes for their new mission.
Big Safari rushed the aircraft into service in the summer of 2009, only eight months after funding was approved. By January 2010, however, Liberty was still not an official Air Force program, there were no permanent squadrons for the aircraft, and no crews were permanently assigned to the aircraft that were deployed.
The Air Force did eventually create actual squadrons for the new aircraft, but in mid-2011, Congress first suggested that the Air Force transfer the program to the Army. The wide array of different, but similar systems already in use by the Army had effectively called the Liberty’s basic reason for being into question. The proposal reportedly took representatives in both services off guard, however and for a time, it looked like the Liberty aircraft might end up homeless. The current plan, however, makes smart use of the aircraft to help preserves the capability, as well as help to consolidate the myriad Quick Reaction Capability systems in use by the Army and Special Operations Command.
According to the proposed course of action outlined in the 2014 NDAA, the Army will use the MC-12Ws it receives to reduce costs associated with their Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System (EMARSS). The EMARSS is also mounted in a King Air variant, the MC-12S. It should be a relatively simple proposition to either convert MC-12W aircraft to the MC-12S standard or mount the EMARSS equipment in the existing aircraft. Either case would definitely be preferable to buying new aircraft.
The Army hopes that EMARSS will replace both its aging Guardrail/Common Sensor signals intelligence aircraft and a host of QRC systems acquired over the last decade. These QRC systems include the Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System (MARSS), along with other systems have more colorful names, like Constant Hawk, Highlighter, and Desert Owl. All of these systems have cameras and signals intelligence packages, or both. EMARSS will have both, as well as a “geo-location” system, the capabilities of which are classified.
A key point with these QRC systems is that in most cases the Army does not actually operate the existing systems, providing them to private contractors who then fly the missions. When this happens, the system is said to be “Government Owned/Contractor Operated” (GOCO). In some cases, the Army does not even own the system itself. These systems are “Contractor Owned/Contractor Operated” (COCO).
EMARSS, like the Liberty and Guardrail, will be entirely owned by the military and operated by Army military intelligence personnel. It will also use a single airframe. Contractors are currently free to use whatever aircraft they have, so long as they can carry the equipment and meet the Army’s other requirements. The MARSS, for instance, has been flown in Afghanistan in the past on two different King Air variants, as well as the de Havilland Canada DHC-7, all at the same time.
A similar situation exists within the Air Force’s component of Special Operations Command. In 2006, the Air Force Special Operations Command acquired a number of U-28A aircraft, a variant of the Pilatus PC-12 turboprop. Some of these aircraft were fitted with infrared full-motion video systems.
The ever increasing demand for such systems, including Africa, put a strain on the small fleet. In February 2012, one of these aircraft crashed in Djibouti as it returned from a mission somewhere in the Horn of Africa.
To supplement the capabilities of the U-28A fleet, Special Operations Command leased nine Javaman surveillance systems in 2008 in a COCO arrangement. These systems were carried on the ubiquitous and slightly more powerful King Air aircraft. It is unclear what Javaman actually does, but it is likely a combination of full-motion video and signals intelligence systems found on similar aircraft. In 2012, the Pentagon decided to shift Javaman from a COCO system to a GOCO system.
The plan for the MC-12Ws once they get to Air Force Special Operations Command has not been clearly spelled out. It is possible that the aircraft will be converted to use the Javaman system or they may simply supplement them. Whatever the case, the new aircraft will certainly help Special Operations Command wean itself from having to rely on contractors, just like EMARSS hopes to do in the Army. Air Force Special Operations Command is also working to convert its fleet of commercial PC-12s into fully militarized U-28As to meet its requirements. It is important to note that reports often treat these two nomenclatures as interchangeable, but they are not.
The transfer of the MC-12Ws may seem like a relatively minor change, but as one can see it is part of a much larger push to consolidate this type of surveillance capability. The transfer of the MC-12W to Air Force Special Operations Command and the Army will help them reduce the wide array of systems that are in service now. It will also help the services rely less on contractors to provide these important capabilities. Integrating these systems into the formal military force structure will help reduce costs and make the systems more readily available where they are needed most.