In February Japan agreed to lease the Philippines five TC-90 aircraft for under a million dollars a year. Not only was this inexpensive but of great military value to the Philippines. The TC-90 doubles the range of Filipino coastal surveillance from 300 to 600 kilometers. Until quite recently it was illegal for Japan to do this sort of thing. Japan changed its laws in 2014 to allow for the export of military equipment (under certain conditions) and is expected to supply the Philippines with a lot more help like this. For that reason China protested this Japanese support for the Philippines because now the expanding Chinese navy now had more eyes on it.
The TC-90 is one of many military versions of the popular King Air twin engine civilian transport. Many are used for military purposes (training, transport, electronic warfare, surveillance) and Japan has been using them since the 1970s. In fact one of the most common military air transports is the King Air, with nearly 300 still in military service. 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 use. Yet one the first customers in the 1960s was the U.S. Army. Since then 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.
Military use of the King Air began in the United States (where manufacturer Beechcraft is located) in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the U.S. Army adopted the King Air for a wide variety of intelligence missions. Later the army also used King Airs as transports and foreign customers used them for trainers as well.
The first King Air model was the 90 and that version remained in production but was continually upgraded. More advanced versions (the 200 and 350) were introduced between the 1970s and 1990s but the model 90 is still the simplest and cheapest. The most recent King Air 350 is a 5.6 ton aircraft with more powerful engines, electronics and a sturdier airframe than the original 90. These upgraded models can cost over $7 million new, about twice what a 5.3 ton model 90 costs. All King Air models are about the same size and can carry 13 passengers. The TC-90s are military versions of the King Air 90 and used ones sell for less than a million dollars and cost less than a thousand dollars an hour (maintenance, fuel, spares) to operate. Spend a hundred thousand dollars or so per plane for modern optics and a small surface search radar and the TC-90 becomes a formidable maritime surveillance aircraft.