The MC-12W is a medium- to low-altitude, twin-engine turboprop aircraft. The primary mission is providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) support directly to ground forces. The MC-12W is a joint forces air component commander asset in support of the joint force commander. The MC-12W is not just an aircraft, but a complete collection, processing, analysis and dissemination system. The aircraft are military versions of the Hawker Beechcraft Super King Air 350 and Super King 350ER (both subvariants are designated MC-12W). A fully operational system consists of a modified aircraft with sensors, a ground exploitation cell, line-of-sight and satellite communications datalinks, along with a robust voice communications suite. The aircraft is equipped with an electro-optical infrared sensor and other sensors as the mission requires. The EO/IR sensor also includes a laser illuminator and designator in a single sensor package. The MC-12W system is capable of worldwide operations and supports all aspects of the Air Force Irregular Warfare mission: counter insurgency, foreign internal defense, and building partnership capacity.
In April 2008, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates established a new task force last week to ensure the Defense Department was doing everything possible to provide ISR assets to support warfighters. On 18 April 2008, the Secretary of Defense established a Department of Defense-wide ISR Task Force to identify and recommend solutions for increased ISR in the US Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility. On 21 April 2008, Secretary Gates told officers at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama that he created the task force to give the ISR issue the same level emphasis as mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, for which he had established a task force as well. "My concern is that our services are still not moving aggressively in wartime to provide resources needed now on the battlefield," the secretary said during a speech to Air War College students. "While we have doubled this capability in recent months, it is still not good enough."
Gates expressed frustration at the pace of progress, slowed by people "stuck in old ways of doing business" who make instituting change "like pulling teeth." The new task force would move the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance issue to the front burner as it explored "more innovative and bold ways to help those whose lives are on the line," Gates' said. Getting more ISR support to deployed forces "may require rethinking long-standing service assumptions and priorities about which missions require certified pilots and which do not," he said. "For those missions that still require manned missions, we need to think hard about whether we have the right platforms," he said. Particularly in environments where the United States and its partners had total control of the skies, Gates noted that "low-cost, low-tech alternatives" may provide the basic reconnaissance and close-air support needed.
Gates recalled the introduction of unmanned aerial vehicles in the 1990s, when he was director of central intelligence. "The introduction of UAVs around this time meant far less risk and far more versatile means of gathering data, and other nations like Israel set about using them," he said. "In 1992, however, the Air Force would not co-fund with CIA a vehicle without a pilot."
As he called for out-of-the-box thinking about how the military could operate in the most sensible, affordable way, Gates said that it was time to recognize the role unmanned aerial vehicles played in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, and how much more they could contribute. "Unmanned systems cost much less and offer greater loiter time than their manned counterparts, making them ideal for many of today's tasks," he said. Gates noted a 25-fold increase since 2001, with 5,000 now in the military inventory. "But in my view, we can do -- and we should do -- more to meet the needs of men and women fighting in the current conflicts while their outcome may still be in doubt."
Gates told reporters he had given the task force "some pretty short deadlines." Its first report to him was due within the first week, and Gates wanted its complete job wrapped up in 90 days. "I have found that perhaps the most effective way to get things done around here is to put pretty short deadlines on things -- and then force them," he said. So in the weeks ahead, the task force would hone in on two key areas: determining what ISR resources could be moved into the combat theater, and ensuring commands there were making the best use of what they already had. Gates said he wanted the team to take a worldwide inventory of the department's ISR assets, including manned and unmanned aircraft, satellites and ground-based sensors, to see if some can be moved into the combat zone.
The Air Force responded to this initiative primarily by increasing its unmanned aerial system purchases and activity. For example, the service accelerated MQ-1 Predator combat air patrols 4 times during 2008, and the first MQ-9 Reaper deployment occurred in July 2008, one full year ahead of schedule.
In addition, on 1 July 2008, the Secretary of Defense decided that the Air Force should proceed with procurement of 37 C-12 class aircraft to augment unmanned systems. The proposed configuration included both Full Motion Video (FMV) and Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) capabilities. The mission of the aicraft would be to provide Direct FMV and SIGINT to ground forces, Air Force Processing, Exploitation and Dissemination (PED) forward deployed. The Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (Acquisition) (SAF/AQ) tasked Big Safari to procure and modify aircraft as quickly as possible. At that time, the projected delivery of the first modified C-12 aircraft to Air Combat Command was 1 March 2009.
In September 2008, the Air Force and Air National Guard officials agreed to establish a temporary mission qualification training detachment for the MC-12 aircraft at Key Field in Meridian, Mississippi. This mission, conducted by the Mississippi Air National Guard, would help bolster the Department of Defense's intelligence gathering capability in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. Other airborne systems provided wide-area video, real-time playback, and downlinks to troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, including the US Army's Constant Hawk, based on the Shorts C-23, and the US Marine Corps Angel Fire platform.
This mission, designated Project Liberty, would train approximately 1,000 students during the following 2 years at the 186th Air Refueling Wing, located at Key Field. The 186th Air Refueling Wing would conduct total force mission qualification training for this program, providing the manpower and facilities for the training unit. The 186th Air Refueling Wing would continue performing its current air refueling mission through 2011, operating the KC-135R Stratotanker while conducting Project Liberty training.
On 22 October 2008, Marina Malenic reported in Defense Daily that the Air Force planned to purchase and modify nearly 40 Beech C-12 Huron manned aircraft over the following year and could purchase even more of the lightweight twin turboprop planes in the following 5 years to provide more ISR capability to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to documents detailing the service's upcoming 6-year spending plan.
The MC-12W aircraft was the Air Force's newest manned ISR platform, providing near-real-time ISR. Nearly $100 million had been obligated to bring up to 7 MC-12W aircraft beginning in January 2009. The modified C-12s, initially referred to in some cases as RC-12s, were expected to be deployed to the CENTCOM area of operations in April 2009. The crews would be on a 6-month deployment schedule, ensuring there wes always enough manpower for the mission. The first aircraft would be equipped with an L-3 Wescam MX-15 sensor and an undisclosed signals intelligence payload. The MC-12W achieved Initial Operating Capability in June 2009, and it was less than 8 months from funding approval to delivery of the aircraft to the theater of operations.
In February 2012, as part of USAF structure changes, it was announced that the service expected to transfer the MC-12W mission to the Air National Guard (ANG) by FY14. In support of this, an Active Association would be stood up to operate the MC-12W Flying Training Unit at Beale Air Force Base, using up to 6 Air National Guard aircraft. MC-12W were to be operated by a number of ANG units across the United States. As a result of the transfer, the USAF would also divest 11 RC-26 aircraft. Transferring the MC-12W to the ANG would allow the Air Force to maintain state-of-the-art ISR capability and avoid heavy investment in a similar capability. This change ensured viability of domestic response and Department of Defense support to civil authorities and Homeland Defense missions.
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