Electronic Weapons: A King Air Listens For The Lost Girls

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May 18, 2014: The U.S. (directly) and Israel (indirectly) are using at least one electronic surveillance aircraft (an MC-12) to search for 223 female high school students kidnapped in April by Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram. The girls are believed to be held in some hilly forests in northeast Nigeria. The MC-12 may prove decisive in finding the girls. 

The MC-12 exists largely because American and Israeli armed forces have been sharing data and ideas for decades about how to create and use an aircraft like the MC-12. This led to the use of Beechcraft King Air twin engine commercial aircraft for electronic warfare and reconnaissance against irregular forces. That includes Taliban and Palestinian terrorists as well as Boko Haram and al Shabaab in Africa.

The MC-12 is a commercial Beechcraft King Air which can perform like a heavy (Predator or Reaper) UAV equipped for electronic warfare and crammed with vidcams, electronic sensors, jammers, and radios. This MC-12 aircraft was called Ceasar (Communications Electronic Attack with Surveillance And Reconnaissance) and could spend hours circling an area, 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 often vaguely aware of what the MC-12 can do but have no better way to communicate. Thus the few Ceasar equipped aircraft sent to Afghanistan have proved very useful for the American and British troops that used them.

Military use of the King Air arose in the United States (where Beechcraft is located) began 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. Israel was made aware of this technology and developed its own versions (the Tzufit). But the Israelis had different needs and eventually developed a King Air equipped to deal with Palestinian terrorists who declared war on Israel in 2000. In the last decade Israel developed an intelligence collection version of the King Air that the U.S. began building in 2008 as the MC-12 Ceasar. This MC-12 version incorporated vidcams, as well all the electronic monitoring gear.

In 2010 the U.S. Air Force sent its first MC-12 "manned UAV replacement" to Afghanistan and it proved successful. This despite the fact that it could only stay in action for seven hours (plus one to get to the target area) per sortie, which was half as long as a UAVs. But more UAV capabilities (vidcams overhead for hours at a time) were needed in Afghanistan, and it didn't matter if the pilots are in the air or on the ground.

The Americans also knew, as the Israelis had discovered, that the King Airs were faster than UAVs, enabling them to get where they were needed more quickly. More importantly the King Air carried more sensors than a UAV, which enabled it to be outfitted as a Ceasar aircraft. 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 over relying on operators elsewhere in Afghanistan, or somewhere else on the planet. That personal touch still makes a difference

In 2008 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 Israeli experience had already demonstrated. In its first six months those dozen aircraft flew over a thousand sorties in Iraq. That's about four sorties per week per aircraft. Most of the 43 MC-12s ordered have been 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 walkies).

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 itself is a modified version of the much older RC-12 electronic reconnaissance aircraft.  The MC-12 provides the same service as a UAV (full motion video) in addition to electronic monitoring (radio, cell phone, etc.). These were a big help because UAVs could not be manufactured fast enough to supply battlefield needs, so the manned MC-12s help fill the gap.

The King Air 350 is a 5.6 ton, twin engine aircraft. 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. The Tzufits have a crew of five. Some of the sensors are operated from the ground. The Tzufit's are earlier King Air models, and can't fly as high as the MC-12s. But Israel is a smaller place and the Tzufits are all the King Air that is needed. Moreover, the Tzufit crews fly along the Gaza and Leabanese border for years and have acquired a detailed knowledge of what is below. This makes their capabilities even greater than what the aircraft is capable of.

The King Air 350 (and earlier models) has long been used by the U.S. Army and Air Force as a light cargo and passenger transport (the C-12 Huron). The MC-12 in Nigeria probably came from those AFRICOM has deployed in Africa. Most are based in Djibouti where American and French forces have built a large special operations base since September 11, 2001.

 

 

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