August 3, 2009:
Life in wartime has taught the U.S. Air Force that smaller is often better. First came the deal with the army, to buy some two engine C-27Js (a joint U.S./Italian upgrade of the Italian G-222) to get smaller cargos into places that the larger, four-engine C-130 would have problems with. The C-27J is as 28 ton aircraft that can carry nine tons for up to 2,500 kilometers. The U.S. Air Force bought ten C-27Js in the 1990s, but took them out of service because it was cheaper to deliver stuff via the larger C-130. However, the C-27J is a favorite with many other air forces, and draws on technology from the C-130J program (using the same engines, propellers and electronic items). The C-27Js cost about $30 million each.
Even as the C-27Js began to arrive, the air force found out that there were places, especially in Afghanistan, where an even smaller transports would be useful. So now the air force is checking out getting some more Beech King Airs (which is already used as the MC-12 electronic reconnaissance aircraft and UAV substitute) The army began using the Beech Air King as the RC-12 in the 1970s, and has been seeking a replacement for the last few years. But 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 that, as a UAV replacement, carries only the two pilots. The sensors are operated from the ground. This enables the MC-12 to stay in the air for about eight hours per sortie. Not quite what the Predator can do (about twice the time per sortie), but good enough to help fill 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 (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. But the air force also sees the King Air as a small cargo/passenger aircraft, especially for the many special operations that must be supported.
Another candidate is the Cessna Caravan 208. This is a large, single engine, aircraft that can carry nine passengers or a ton of cargo. It costs about half what the King Air does, and is already popular as a passenger/cargo aircraft in remote parts of the planet. The air force wants to have some of these "light transports" in service by 2012.