Newest manned spy plane scores points in war effort
Rather than an unmanned drone, the MC-12 Liberty is a four-person, twin-engine propeller plane based on a civilian aircraft used around the world.
Since Defense Secretary Robert Gates rushed the planes into service June 2009, the intelligence gathered by MC-12 crews has helped capture dozens of insurgents, disrupt networks that produce improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and discover such bombs before they could kill U.S. troops, according to information the Air Force declassified for USA TODAY.
Intelligence gathered by the planes has led to:
• Capturing 60 terrorists and criminals in Iraq.
• Killing or capturing 20 insurgents in Afghanistan, including four commanders.
• Capturing a Taliban commander responsible for helping suicide bombers travel in eastern Afghanistan.
• Locating and identifying roadside bombs around the southern Afghan town of Marjah in advance of a Marine-led offensive there in March.
The push for better intelligence in Afghanistan comes as violence continues to surge, particularly the placement of IEDs. In April, insurgents planted 1,058 makeshift bombs, compared with 435 in April 2009, according to the Joint IED Defeat Organization.
The MC-12 is a Hawker Beechcraft 350 with a camera that can supply video to troops on the ground and sensors that can intercept enemy communication. The crew consists of two pilots, an airman who operates the sensors and a cryptologist who analyzes the intelligence the plane scoops up.
MC-12 crews have flown more than 2,000 missions in Iraq, Air Force records show. The first aircraft arrived in Afghanistan last December.
The Air Force plans to spend $100 million to train airmen on using the aircraft's spy technology over the next two years, Air Force budget records show.
Although the MC-12s are more durable and capable of flying in bad weather than drones, they can't stay aloft as long, said Col. Dan Johnson, who commands the 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing. A Predator or Reaper drone can fly for 24 hours, vs. an MC-12's six hours.
Gates pushed the Air Force to buy the planes quickly after a task force identified the need for more spy planes to collect information about insurgent activity in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Air Force initially bought seven used planes from private businessmen and retrofitted them. It now buys new planes designed to accommodate sensors.
The planes' relative success has led the Air Force to seek to acquire more and has sparked a bidding war in Congress, as elected officials have lobbied the Air Force to base the new aircraft at facilities in their states. In April, the Air Force narrowed candidates vying to be the official MC-12 base to facilities in Oklahoma, Mississippi, Virginia, Georgia and Missouri.
The final decision will be made next year, the Air Force said in a statement.
"This plane is a flying intelligence shop," said Maj. David Kurle, an Air Force spokesman at the operations center.
Using manned planes along with drones has allowed the Air Force to put more spy planes in the air faster than if it relied solely on drones such as the Predator and Reaper, said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org.
"It takes a finite amount of time to fabricate a drone," Pike said. "They can buy these airplanes on eBay. The Air Force wanted to get into persistent surveillance with both feet. This plane allows them to do that."
Capt. Tucker Hamilton, 30, an MC-12 pilot at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, said he has flown missions to look for survivors of an avalanche and to locate insurgents.
"The weather sucked today," he said in a recent interview. "But we were able to fly all our missions."
Johnson interviewed, researched and wrote a paper for the Air Force exploring whether drones or manned planes were better at spying on insurgents.
"It turned out that we need both," he said in an e-mail.