The U.S. Air Force does not like to reveal details of its intelligence operations but recently some data got out about how things went in 2012. The unit in question is the 361st Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group, which spends most of its time supporting SOCOM (Special Operations Command) missions. In 2012 the 361st flew 31,180 combat sorties in support of nearly a thousand missions that enabled SOCOM forces to arrest 3,980 terrorism suspects and kill 1,210 (some of whom objected violently to getting arrested). Most of this intel activity took place in Afghanistan, with a substantial minority of it in Africa. The two aircraft most often used for these intel sorties were the U-28 and the MC-12. There was a lot already known about the MC-12, but it was previously believed that the U-28 was mainly used as a transport for SOCOM operations in out-of-the-way places.
The heavy use of these sensor equipped commercial aircraft is not surprising. Between 2008 and 2012 the U.S. Air Force more than doubled its fleet of manned and unmanned reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft. By 2012 the air force was spending $67 billion a year on intelligence, most of it on aircraft actually doing the reconnaissance and surveillance.
The MC-12 is basically a militarized version of the commercial Beech King Air. The army began using this Beech aircraft as the RC-12 in the 1970s, and has been seeking a replacement for the last few years. But then the air force realized that the RC-12 was suitable for use as a Predator substitute (to do surveillance and intel collection). 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 fully equipped Predator goes for. The MC-12's crew consists of two pilots and two equipment operators. Some of the sensors are operated from the ground. The King Air 350 (and earlier models) has long been used by the army and air force as a light cargo and passenger transport. That model was called the C-12 Huron and that was soon adapted to intelligence and electronic warfare use. .
One of the most common aircraft used for intel operations in Africa by the 361st is a military version (the U-28) of the Pilatus PC-12 single engine transport. This aircraft has a max weight of 4.7 tons and a payload of 1.5 tons. Normally the U-28 carries nine passengers (plus one pilot) or over half a ton of cargo. Cruising speed is 500 kilometers an hour and average endurance is five hours per sortie. It was known that the U.S. Air Force operated at least two dozen U-28s for SOCOM in Africa during 2012. U-28s were reported operating over, and landing in, Somalia. The small, but usually very reliable, U-28 goes largely unnoticed over Somalia. That's because most of the aircraft seen there are one or two engine propeller driven planes smuggling something.
The PC-12 entered service in the 1990s and over a thousand have been built (in Switzerland) so far. The PC-12 is mainly used by civilian operators. It's popular as a corporate passenger aircraft, as an air ambulance, and an airliner in remote areas. The PC-12 is known for being easy to fly, reliable, and rugged.
The U.S. also has a number of other airports in central and southern Africa where it has agreements to quietly allow U-28s and Phoenix Air Group (the CIA/SOCOM “airline”) aircraft operate. American warplanes (especially the very-long range F-15E) operate out of Persian Gulf air bases and have apparently carried out smart bomb attacks in Yemen, Somalia, and perhaps elsewhere in Africa apparently based on intel collected by U-28s equipped with sensors to take pictures and monitor electronic communications. Throughout the region there are often large explosions at night. If a smart bomb was dropped from a high enough altitude, there would just be the explosion and yet another mystery no one was keen to solve. There is very little in the way of ATC (air traffic control) in Africa outside the major airports. So the sound of small propeller driven passing overhead goes largely unnoted.
The release of data on 2012 operations of the 361st confirm a lot of estimates of SOCOM aerial intel operations, and also confirm suspicions that SOCOM was more active in Africa (especially in the air) than was generally known.