June 5, 2009:
Earlier this year, the U.S. Air Force has received first of its MC-12 manned reconnaissance aircraft. A dozen are expected to arrive in Afghanistan this year. Eventually, 30 will be used in Iraq and Afghanistan. But actual deployment has been delayed for several months, or more, because of problems installing the electronics.
The MC-12 is a modified version of the earlier twin engine RC-12 aircraft. The MC-12 will provide the same service as a UAV (full motion video) in addition to electronic monitoring (radio, cell phone, etc.). The air force is converting some King Air 350s, and then using new ones, to obtain 37 MC-12s for this duty as, in effect, a Predator UAV replacement. The UAVs cannot be manufactured fast enough to supply battlefield needs, so the manned MC-12s will help fill the gap.
The MC-12 is a militarized version of the Beech King Air. The army began using the Beech Air King as the RC-12 in the 1970s, and has been seeking a replacement for the last few years. But it was realized that the RC-12 was suitable for use as a Predator substitute. The King Air 350 is a 5.6 ton aircraft that, as a UAV replacement, carries only the two pilots. The sensors are operated from the ground. This enables the MC-12 to stay in the air for about eight hours per sortie. Not quite what the Predator can do (about twice the time per sortie), but good enough to help fill 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 (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.
In Afghanistan, the UAVs like Predator have proved to be a critical weapon in fighting the Taliban. These aircraft can cover a lot of ground, and stay with any group of armed men they spot. This is crucial, as it makes it possible for bombers and/or ground troops to intercept. Naturally, a few smart bombs can neutralize a Taliban group (often 50-100 armed men in pickup trucks, or even moving cross country on foot.) But you want the ground troops to show up to pick over the bodies for IDs and documents. That kind of intelligence is very valuable in keeping track of who is involved, before they hit the road.