In the United States, Congress is trying to persuade the air force to transfer its new force of 37 MC-12 electronic reconnaissance aircraft to the army. Congress is cutting the military budget, and this transfer is justified because the recently developed MC-12 performs a function similar to the much older army RC-12 aircraft. The army received the first of eleven RC-12X aircraft this year. This is the latest version of the RC-12, which has been around since 1971. Normally, the air force uses larger, four engine, aircraft for electronic reconnaissance. But the air force, unable to provide enough Predator and Reaper UAVs to support army operations, and under pressure to do something, quickly developed the MC-12.
Many in Congress see the MC-12 as simply an RC-12 with some UAV type cameras added, and this needlessly duplicates what the army has long been doing with the RC-12. But both the army and air force oppose Congress on this, pointing out that the transfer would involve taking MC-12s out of service so their air force sensors could be replaced with the ones the army uses in its RC-12s. This point has caused many in Congress to back off, for the moment.
It was only two years ago that the U.S. Air Force sent its first MC-12 "manned UAV replacement" to Afghanistan. The MC-12 proved very successful. This despite the fact that it can only stay in action for seven hours (plus one to get to the target area) per sortie, which is half as long as a UAV can stay aloft. But more UAV capabilities (vidcams overhead for hours at a time) were needed in Afghanistan, and it didn't matter if the pilots are in the air or on the ground.
However, the King Airs were faster than UAVs, enabling them to get where needed more quickly, and carried more sensors than a UAV could hold. Moreover, having the equipment operators on board, along with a pilot and co-pilot available to just use their eyes on the target area, did make a difference.
It was three years ago that the first American MC-12 squadron was deployed, to Iraq, where the twin engine aircraft was found to be durable and reliable, and as useful as the Israelis said they would be. In six months, those dozen aircraft flew over a thousand sorties. That's about four sorties per week per aircraft. Most of the 37 MC-12s ordered have been sent to Afghanistan, where they have been worked hard, and held up well to the heavy use. The arrival of these MC-12s was, in effect, the equivalent of increasing the Predator force by at least ten percent, and adding a few more four engine electronic warfare aircraft (to eavesdrop on cell phones and walkies.) Earlier this year, the air force ordered two more MC-12s.
The MC-12 pilots require a nine week training course, which includes simulator time, and twelve flights in the actual aircraft. This converts the pilot of another aircraft type (fighter, tanker, transport) to one who can handle the MC-12. The two equipment operators can do all their training on a simulator.
The MC-12 provides the same service as a UAV (full motion video) in addition to electronic monitoring (radio, cell phone, etc.). The air force also converted some existing King Air 350s, as well as buying new ones, to obtain up to fifty MC-12s for duty as, in effect, a Predator UAV replacement. About three dozen are in service now. These were a big help, because UAVs cannot be manufactured fast enough to supply battlefield needs, so the manned MC-12s help fill the gap.
The MC-12 is basically a militarized version of the Beech King Air. The army began using the Beech aircraft as the RC-12 in the 1970s, and has been seeking a replacement for the last few years. So far, no obviously superior substitute has been found. The King Air 350 is a 5.6 ton, twin engine aircraft. The MC-12 can stay in the air for up to eight hours per sortie. Not quite what the Predator can do (over 20 hours per sortie), but good enough to help meet the demand. The MC-12 has advantages over UAVs. It can carry over a ton of sensors, several times what a Predator can haul. The MC-12 can fly higher (11 kilometers/35,000 feet) and is faster (over 500 kilometers an hour, versus 215 for the Predator.) The MC-12s cost about $20 million each, more than twice what a Predator goes for. The MC-12's crew consists of two pilots and two equipment operators. Some of the sensors are operated from the ground. The King Air 350 (and earlier models) has long been used by the U.S. Army and Air Force as a light cargo and passenger transport (the C-12 Huron).