A Chinese firm is offering a smaller and less expensive version of the American MC/RC-12 ELINT (Electronic intelligence) surveillance aircraft. The Chinese CSA-003 Scout is a two ton twin-prop aircraft designed to carry a sensor pod beneath the fuselage. Inside one or two pilots fly the aircraft with one or two sensor operators behind them. The aircraft has a top speed of 355 kilometers an hour and endurance of five or six hours. Since the sensor pod can contain a wide variety of equipment the CSA-003 is being offered in military and commercial models as it could be equipped for non-military tasks live border patrol, general security and aerial surveillance for natural resources or pollution.
The CSA-003 was inspired by the American military use of twin-prop commercial aircraft. In the early 1970s the U.S. Army adopted the Beechcraft King Air as the RC-12 and has used it for a wide variety of intelligence missions ever since. After 2003 this led too mode demand for such aircraft and in 2008 the U.S. Air Force sent their own version, the MC-12 to Iraq and later Afghanistan.
By 2000 the King Air had evolved into the 350 model which was 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 UAV 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 MC-12 sensors are operated from the ground. Israel adopted the RC-12 and developed an intelligence collection version incorporating vidcams that the U.S. eventually incorporated for the MC-12.
In Iraq MC-12 was found to be durable and reliable. Most of the 37 MC-12s ordered ended up in 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.
The CSA-003 takes advantage of the fact that electronics and sensors are becoming smaller and more capable. In addition the CSA-003, like the MC-12 can use a satellite data link to access more computer power on the ground as well as more human sensor operators and analysts.