Intelligence: Jet Propelled Intelligence Collection

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January 3, 2024: The U.S. Army has upgraded its fleet of intelligence collection and reconnaissance aircraft by adding two Bombardier Challenger 650 business jets. The jets can carry more equipment and stay in the air longer, as in up to ten hours, than propeller driven aircraft. One of these aircraft, using the call sign CL60, started operating from a Romanian air base in 2023 to fly ARTEMIS (Airborne Reconnaissance and Targeting Multi-Mission Intelligence System) missions along the borders of Russian occupied Crimea and reported what it found, in real time, to the Ukrainian military. This enables the Ukrainians to quickly carry out attacks on any Russian military activity considered threatening or simply vulnerable to immediate attack.

In addition to the Challenger business jets, the army has 93 propeller-driven and turbo-prop intelligence aircraft, 3 of them EO-5Cs and 7 RC-7s. There are also 83 RC-12Ds, RC-12Hs and RC-12Ks, all variants of the Beechcraft King Air and Super King Air. These older aircraft are being retired in favor of more jets. The army did not always have such a large fleet of intelligence collection aircraft.

In 2011 the government forced the air force to transfer their new force of 37 MC-12 electronic reconnaissance aircraft, a more recent version of the turboprop Super King Air, to the army. At the time the defense budget was shrinking, and consolidation was one way to cope. Congress is cutting the military budget, and this transfer is justified because the recently developed air force MC-12 performed a function similar to the much older army RC-12 aircraft. The army received the first of eleven RC-12X in 2011. This was 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 duplicated what the army has long been doing with the RC-12. But both the army and air force opposed 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 problem caused many in Congress to back off, for a while.

In 2009 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. This was half as long as a UAV endurance, but the manned aircraft carried more equipment. Aircraft with vidcams overhead were needed in the combat zone and the troops didn’t care if the aircraft were manned or unmanned as long as they were in the air. This was what was 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 were 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 walkie-talkies.) 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 full motion video service as a UAV in addition to electronic monitoring of radios, cell phones and so on. 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, up to 11 kilometers or 35,000 feet and is faster at 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 the C-12 Huron light cargo and passenger transport.

 

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