U.S. commanders in Iraq are not happy about losing so many of their intelligence gathering troops, and their equipment, to Afghanistan. While U.S. combat troops are very restricted in what they can do these days in Iraq, the American intel units are still free to operate, especially in the air. The Iraqis know that the Americans have much better intelligence resources, and are eager to receive all the help they can get. But the need is greater in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have found that the only way to inflict substantial casualties on their enemies (especially the foreign troops) is with roadside bombs. But over the last five years, the U.S. developed methods to defeat roadside bombs, that depended on a special kind of intelligence effort. Aside from computers, databases and analysts who could figure out exactly who the enemy was and how they operated, the key element was UAVs and manned aircraft operating like UAVs (taking before and after pictures of roads, again and again, to see when and how someone had planted roadside bombs, and often catch the bomb planters in the act.)
Afghanistan has now become UAV central, and Iraq is being stripped of the large fleet of larger (over a few hundred pounds) UAVs it used to enjoy. In particular, the U.S. Air Force is sending most of its fifty new MC-12 manned reconnaissance aircraft to Afghanistan. So far, nearly 30 have been delivered. One of these MC-12s flew its first combat mission, in Iraq, on June 10th. But the plan was always to send most of them to Afghanistan.
The MC-12 is a modified version of the earlier RC-12 electronic reconnaissance aircraft. The MC-12 will provide the same service as a UAV (full motion video) in addition to electronic monitoring (radio, cell phone, etc.). The air force is converting some King Air 350s, and then using new ones, to obtain 37 MC-12s for this duty as, in effect, a Predator UAV replacement. The UAVs cannot be manufactured fast enough to supply battlefield needs, so the manned MC-12s will help fill the gap.
The MC-12 is 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 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.
The manufacturer (Beechcraft) of the MC-12, is redesigning the wings to provide hard points for missiles (like the Hellfire) and electronics pods. While the air force has not ordered this mod, it is expected to, and the manufacturer sees the MC-12 as a manned equivalent to the Predator UAV, which has had great success by carrying a couple of Hellfires on missions. The air force is considering adding a laser designator, which is used to identify targets for laser guided missiles.
Beechcraft believes there is a civilian and export market for the MC-12, and has modified the design (removing items the U.S. Air Force won't allow foreigners to have) for export, and expects to sell over a hundred, to military, police and commercial organizations, in the next decade. These will cost about $18 million each.
In Afghanistan, the UAVs like Predator have proved to be a critical weapon in fighting the Taliban. And not just with defeating roadside bombs. These aircraft can cover a lot of ground, and stay with any group of armed men they spot. This is crucial, as it makes it possible for bombers and/or ground troops to intercept. Naturally, a few smart bombs can neutralize a Taliban group (often 50-100 armed men in pickup trucks, or even moving cross country on foot.) But you want the ground troops to show up to pick over the bodies for IDs and documents. That kind of intelligence is very valuable in keeping track of who is involved.