In early 2021 satellite photos of the Russian airbase in Syria revealed the presence of a civilian twin-engine propeller driven aircraft parked next to Russian warplanes. Further examination showed that the twin-prop aircraft with a non-military paint job was in fact a Russian military aircraft; a license-built DA-42, four passenger aircraft that has been around since 2004. Developed by an Austrian firm it is now built in Austria, Canada, Russia and China.
The two-ton aircraft has a lightweight airframe made of composites and uses turbo-diesel engines that can also burn jet fuel. Cruise speed is 326 kilometers an hour, max speed is 12 percent faster. Max range is 2,250 kilometers and endurance varies from six to 12 hours depending on payload. With just the pilot and some sensors you can fly 12-hour missions. Max altitude is 5,500 meters (18,000 feet). Only one pilot is required, leaving seats for passengers or equipment. There is a cargo/luggage compartment in the nose.
Originally designed for the civilian market and as a trainer for multi-engine pilots, most of the thousand built so far have gone to government and military organizations. It turned out that the DA42 arrived at the same time as light weight reconnaissance (radars, high res vidcams), mapping and ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) equipment became widely available. Border patrol and military organizations were ordering twice as many DA42s as civilians and pilot training schools.
Some customers found novel uses for DA42s. In 2008 an Israeli firm converted DA42s into Dominator 2 UAVs with a 400 kg payload, max altitude of 9,400 meters (30,000 feet) and endurance of 28 hours. Dominator has been sold as a superior border control aircraft. Early on the Austrian DA42 manufacturer offered a piloted version of the Dominator concept, with the nose modified to handle a number of sensors and electrical system equipped to deal with the heavier electrical demand. This version came to account for most DA42 sales.
Ten years later Russia developed a DA42 UAV armed with laser guided missiles. This was apparently a research and development project. Since 2016 the Russian military has ordered at least 55 DA42s, most of them trainers and costing about $10 million each.
The FSB (former KGB) has also ordered two. The FSB plans to use DA42s for reconnaissance and surveillance, which explains the non-military paint job of the FSB DA42 in Syria. The FSB sent the aircraft there to see how well DA42s perform in combat zones. The FSB DA42s use the forward cargo compartment for various sensors and are equipped with a satellite link to send real-time video or radar images to the ground. This one FSB DA42 may be used to provide additional security around the Russian airbase, which is adjacent to Idlib province, where thousands of armed rebels are still active. These rebels have launched over a dozen attacks on the airbase, most of them failing to do any damage.
As long as the DA42 operates near its max altitude it should be immune to air defense weapons available to the remaining rebels and Islamic terrorists in northwest and eastern Syria. Lightweight missile defense systems built for helicopters and light transports can be carried by the DA42.
There have been other DA42 variants. In 2016 China introduced its CSA-003 Scout, which was one of the locally built DA42s equipped as a ELINT and photo-reconnaissance aircraft. A sensor pod was carried beneath the fuselage in addition to sensors in the nose and antennae on the wingtips. Inside one or two pilots flew the aircraft with one or two sensor operators behind them. This version had an endurance of five or six hours. Since the sensor pod can contain a wide variety of equipment, the CSA-003 is being offered in military and commercial models as it could be equipped for such non-military tasks live border patrol, general security and aerial surveillance for natural resources or pollution.
Militarized DA42s were inspired by the American military use of twin-prop commercial aircraft for over half century. In the early 1970s the U.S. Army adopted the Beechcraft King Air as the RC-12 and has used it for a wide variety of intelligence missions ever since. After 2003 this led to so much demand for RC-12s that in 2008 the U.S. Air Force sent their own version, the MC-12, to Iraq and later Afghanistan.
By 2000 the King Air had evolved into the 350 model which was a 5.6-ton, twin engine aircraft. The MC-12 has max endurance of eight hours. Not quite what the Predator UAV 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 (11,000 meters/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. Some of the MC-12 sensors are operated from the ground. Israel adopted the RC-12 and developed an intelligence collection version incorporating vidcams that the U.S. eventually incorporated for the MC-12.
In Iraq MC-12 was found to be durable and reliable. But most of the 37 MC-12s ordered ended up in Afghanistan, where they were 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.). 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.
The miniaturization of sensors and improved flight control and digital communications systems favors smaller, more efficient aircraft like DA42 for reconnaissance and surveillance work. The King Air is still in demand for moving cargo (over a ton) or passengers (eleven or more). This is what the American military first bought Beechcraft twin-engine aircraft for. By the 1970s the sensors and electronics were getting smaller and the Beechcraft King Air was a more efficient way to carry these devices on missions.