Warplanes: Ingenious Improvisation Puts More Eyes On Afghanistan


December 18, 2010:  The U.S. Air Force MC-12 "manned UAV replacement" has been in Afghanistan for a year, and has proved 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, versus more than twice the hours for a UAV. But the military needs more UAV capabilities (vidcams overhead for hours at a time), and doesn't care if the pilots are in the air or on the ground.

It was two years ago that the first MC-12 squadron was deployed, to Iraq, where the twin engine aircraft was found to be durable and reliable. 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.)

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 itself is a modified version of the much older RC-12 electronic reconnaissance aircraft.

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. But then it was realized that the RC-12 was suitable for use as a Predator substitute.

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 army and air force as a light cargo and passenger transport. This model was called the C-12 Huron.




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