An MC-12 Liberty prepares for takeoff in 2010 at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. (Senior Airman Brittany Y. Bateman / Air Force)
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The MC-12 Liberty provided a quick and effective solution to give troops downrange more eyes in the sky, but the Air Force will need fewer of the planes as it develops more sophisticated surveillance aircraft, a top Pentagon official said.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the Air Force does not plan to keep all 42 of the MC-12 aircraft that it now has. The twin-propeller Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350s are fitted with surveillance sensors and have an aircrew of four: two pilots, a sensor operator and a signals intelligence specialist.
"With respect to the [assets] that we put together quickly, under the pressure of combat, and which have been so amazingly successful, they do pose a managerial issue for us after the war because they were not essentially designed to last; they don't necessarily have all the features that we wanted in a force that will be an enduring part of the force," Carter said at a May 30 event at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.
"Liberty fleet is also very much of a quick-reaction type of fleet. These are the little turbo props with a lot of ISR [signals intelligence] and so forth on them, also essential, and we are going to keep a portion of that fleet."
Pending approval by Congress, all 42 of the Air Force's MC-12s will be transferred to the Air National Guard by 2014, according to documents submitted to Congress in February. The Air Force plans to transfer nine to 11 of the aircraft to each of the following: Key Field Air Guard Station, Miss.; Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, Texas; Bradley Air National Guard Base, Conn.; and Fort Wayne Air National Guard Station, Ind. The planes are currently at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., which will retain an MC-12 training element.
"As we draw down, there will obviously be a decrease requirement for these platforms, but I do not believe it will ever actually disappear," an Air Force official said. "We will flow them to other parts of the globe to continue our fight against all forms of terrorism."
Although the Air Force is focused on developing aircraft that can beat sophisticated air defense systems, it will need to retain aircraft designed for counterinsurgencies such as the MC-12, said retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula.
"We do need the capability to deal in contested airspace, but we also need the capability to provide desired output in the most cost-effective [way] in where we spend 95 percent of our engagement time, and that's in permissive airspace," said Deptula, former deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
With production of Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles maxed out, a Defense Department task force ordered the MC-12 deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008 as part of a broader effort to disrupt roadside bomb networks. But by June 2009, the deployment of 23 aircraft had fallen behind schedule.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said at the time that the delays could make life difficult for thousands of ground troops who had recently arrived in Afghanistan and were expected to launch an offensive against the Taliban.
"Whatever the reason is for the delay, the [defense] secretary wants to see these aircraft in theater as soon as possible and put to work because it is a matter of life and death for these guys," Morrell said.
Those initial hiccups were because the first seven MC-12 planes were individually converted from commercial use, Deptula said.
"Each of them was a bit different, and it wasn't until airplanes started flowing off the Hawker Beech line that standardization could be implemented. But those difficulties were overcome quickly, and the completed aircraft were out to the field in record time," he said.
In June 2009, the first MC-12 to fly a combat sortie in theater departed from Joint Base Balad, Iraq. The first of the planes to be deployed to Afghanistan arrived six months later.
By October, one of three MC-12 units, the 4th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, had surpassed 10,000 sorties and 50,000 flight hours and had supported ground operations that had led to the capture or elimination of more than 4,000 targets, according to an Air Force news release.