October 25, 2015: Strategy Page
The U.S. Air Force is giving away its 41 RC-12W electronic reconnaissance aircraft. These were acquired by the air force starting in 2008 to deal with the shortage of Predator UAVs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now eleven RC-12Ws are going to the army, 26 to SOCOM and four to another (not named) agency. The air force does not usually give fixed wing aircraft to the army, which is one reason most of the RC-12Ws went to SOCOM. But there was still demand for the RC-12W and the air force is trying to cut expenses.
The MC-12s were quite useful and could 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. Since 2009 the air force MC-12Ws flew 79,000 combat sorties averaging about five hours each. The sensors and operators enabled ground troops to kill or capture over 8,000 Islamic terrorists along with hundreds of terrorist hideouts, bomb workshops or storage sites.
The MC-12 was based on one of the most widely used, but largely unknown, military transport aircraft; the King Air twin-turboprop. There are nearly 300 in military service and it’s not surprising that most people think of the King Air as a civilian aircraft because most of the 6,000 built since the 1960s have been for commercial not military use. Yet over the decades more than a thousand King Airs have been bought, often second-hand by the military because the price was right and the King Air could get the job done.
The U.S. military has often used the King Air for ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance) work as the MC-12 or as transports (the C-12 Huron) and electronic warfare (RC-12) aircraft. There are so many King Airs out there that the military often buys used ones because they are so much cheaper and still get the job done.
The RC-12W electronic warfare version is crammed with vidcams, electronic sensors, jammers, and radios. This aircraft (Ceasar, for Communications Electronic Attack with Surveillance And Reconnaissance) can spend hours circling an Afghan battleground, keeping troops on the ground aware of enemy walkie-talkie and cell phone use, including location of these devices and translations of what is being discussed. The enemy is vaguely aware of what this militarized King Air can do but have no better way to communicate. Thus the few Caesar equipped aircraft sent to Afghanistan have proved very useful for the American and British troops that use them.
Military use of the King Air arose in the United States (where manufacturer Beechcraft is located) in the early 1970s, when the U.S. Army adopted the King Air as the RC-12 and then used it for a wide variety of intelligence missions ever since.
The current King Air 350 is a 5.6 ton, twin engine aircraft that evolved from the first King Airs that showed up in the 1960s as a 5.3 ton aircraft that could carry 13 passengers. In the 1960s a much improved 5.6 ton version called, until the 1990s, the Super King Air was introduced. The Super King Air is simply a slightly larger and more capable version of the original King Air.
The military and civilian users both admired the simplicity and sturdiness of the design. The only other civilian aircraft on the top ten list of military transports is the single engine Cessna 208. Beechcraft and Cessna are now combined into the same light aircraft division of Textron and individual models like the King Air and Cessna 208 will continue to be built and sold under the same names.