Intelligence: The Beechcraft Bonanza


October 17, 2011: Israel recently revealed some details of how it gathered intelligence for major air attacks in 2006 (against Hezbollah in Lebanon) and 2008 (against Hamas in Gaza). Israel described how it used satellite, UAV and manned recon aircraft to collect data that leads to the identification of enemy bases and weapons storage sites. This, for example, enabled the Israeli Air Force to quickly destroy most of the Hezbollah long range rockets. The few that survived this strike were used, but this initial attack prevented over a hundred large rockets from hitting targets all over Israel. The Israeli air force publicists gave particular credit to Squadron 100, which flew militarized twin-engine Beechcraft King Air planes, nicknamed Tzufit, crammed with sensors, electronics and five equipment operators. These aircraft are operated by the oldest squadron in the air force. Although 18 King Airs have been built for the Israelis, fewer are still in operation. Squadron 100 is believed to have eight in service.

The idea for using the King Air for military reconnaissance arose in the United States (where Beechcraft is located.) In the early 1970s, the U.S. Army adopted the King Air as the RC-12, and has used it for a wide variety of intelligence missions ever since.

But the Israelis had different needs, and in the last decade developed an intelligence collection version of the King Air that the U.S. only recently adopted. This new MC-12 version incorporates vidcams, as well all the electronic monitoring gear. Two years ago, 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 can only stay in action for seven hours (plus one to get to the target area) per sortie, which is half as long as a UAV can stay aloft. 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.

But the Americans knew, as the Israelis had discovered, that the King Airs were faster than UAVs, enabling them to get where needed more quickly, and the King Air carried more sensors than a UAV. 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.

It was three years ago that 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 indicated. In six months, those dozen aircraft flew over a thousand sorties in Iraq. That's about four sorties per week per aircraft. Most of the 37 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.) Earlier this year, the air force ordered two more MC-12s.

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.). The air force also converted some existing King Air 350s, as well as buying new ones, to obtain up to fifty MC-12s for duty as, in effect, a Predator UAV replacement. About three dozen are in service now. These were a big help, because UAVs cannot be manufactured fast enough to supply battlefield needs, so the manned MC-12s help fill the gap.

The MC-12, like the Israeli Tzufit, is basically a militarized version of the Beech King Air. The army began using the Beech aircraft as the RC-12 in the 1970s, and has been seeking a replacement for the last few years. But then it was realized that the RC-12 was suitable for use as a Predator substitute. The air force took the hint.

The King Air 350 is a 5.6 ton, twin engine aircraft. The MC-12 can stay in the air for up to eight hours per sortie. Not quite what the Predator can do (over 20 hours per sortie), but good enough to help meet 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 (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).


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