—Marc V. Schanz
Jan. 28, 2009—This coming April, the first of the Air Force’s new MC-12W intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance aircraft will deploy to the war theater. These platforms, dubbed Liberty Project Aircraft, will augment the heavily tasked overhead ISR assets employed by the US military and its coalition partners in Afghanistan and Iraq, in particular USAF’s MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles.
The MC-12Ws will contribute to the fight by passing valuable full-motion video and signals intelligence data in real-time down to the ground troops at the tactical level who need them most.
Fielding the aircraft by then is “remarkable,” considering the LPA project is only a year old, Brig. Gen. Blair E. Hansen, director of ISR capabilities on the Air Staff, said during a Jan. 23 meeting with reporters in the Pentagon.
The genesis for LPA came last April when the Office of the Secretary of Defense task force sought a quick means to address the seemingly insatiable demand for ISR capability in Southwest Asia. Virtually all MQ-1s and MQ-9s deploy to the fight as soon as they arrive from the factory, yet the demand keeps growing.
“That curve is as steep as it can get right now,” said Hansen of the Air Force’s UAV efforts in theater. Currently there are 33 combat air patrols of MQ-1 and MQ-9s flying in Southwest Asia.
After weighing concepts, Defense Secretary Robert Gates last July signed an order for the Air Force to proceed with its proscribed solution: procurement of 37 specially configured C-12 twin-engine aircraft based on the Beechcraft King Air 350. Thus was born “Project Liberty,” named after the World War II effort to quickly press commercial ships into the fight in Europe.
“The concept was, ‘What can we do in an additive fashion that would get extra capability?” said Hansen. The need was simple: FMV and Sigint in a multi-sensor package. And, getting it to the war zone soon.
The first seven MC-12Ws will be modified, used King Air 350s. The remaining 30 will be based on the King Air 350 Extended Range model. These lightweight airframes will carry a small logistics footprint and be contractor maintained. The ER variant will offer an extra hour-and-half of flight time on top of the six hours of flight time that the basic King Air 350 version has. They will feature signals intelligence, electro-optical and infrared sensors, data links to ground forces, a state-of-the-art countermeasures system, and a blue-force tracker.
The first seven aircraft will feature a laser pointer. The remainder will carry a laser designator with a more accurate, narrower beam than on the pointer. The designator feature will “greatly” facilitate operations, said Hansen.
LPA aircrews (two pilots and two sensor operators) will be able to talk directly to troops on the ground, just as Predator and Reaper operators do today, Hansen said. In addition to utilizing tools such as the remote operational video enhanced receiver to send intelligence to them, the crews will shoot information back to small ground-site locations throughout the theater where approximately 100 deployed airmen will be actively analyzing, disseminating, and processing it as part of the expeditionary air support operations group.
“Heretofore, intelligence was largely centered at high levels,” Hansen said. He added, “Now we have the ability to flatten it. We’ve made it immediately consumable ... and this system is one of those systems pumping information into that picture.”
In the gestation period of the LPA project, conventional and special operations forces were essential to designing the capability, Hansen said. While the Army is pursing a similar capability under its Task Force ODIN, there is no “stove pipe” between them. Instead, there is a common architecture in place in theater to process and exploit information, he said.
Initial training on the LPA will be done by contractors at various locations, followed by weapons system training by the Mississippi Air National Guard in Meridian, Miss. For two years, the Air Guard will run training until the Air Force establishes a “long-term capability,” Hansen said. All pilots will go to commercial training, then follow with mission qualification training for combat missions.
The Air Force has secured all but about $100 million of the $950 million required to fund the acquisition of 37 of the aircraft. The remaining funds are anticipated this summer as part of the next war supplemental spending package.
Hansen said the LPA effort is tied “indirectly in concept” to development of the Iraqi Air Force, including its own King Air fleet which recently began flying similar missions in theater with the help of USAF advisors. The LPA features similar capabilities, but the architecture is quite different and far more robust, he noted.
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