While the U.S. military during the last eight years has become enamored of remotely piloted aircraft, the Air Force is rapidly fielding a new manned twin-propeller airplane to monitor battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“What we’ve been told is, ‘I don’t want all unmanned systems,’” said Maj. Gen. Bradley A. Heithold, commander of the Air Force intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance agency.
“There is something special, if you will, about a manned ISR platform.”
The Air Force, under the recommendation of the an ISR task force established by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, began developing the MC-12W Liberty aircraft in May 2008. Thirteen months later, the aircraft flew its first sortie out of Joint Base Balad, Iraq, according to an Air Force statement.
Heithold, who had previously served on AC-130 gunships, said there are strong bonds between those fighting on the ground and the crews in the air supporting them.
“Because you’re not going to leave those people on the ground until you are out of fuel or out of bullets,” he said at the Geo-Int conference in San Antonio, Texas.
The Liberty, while not armed like an AC-130, has a four-man crew. In order to rapidly field the platform, the Air Force procured second-hand Beech C-12 turboprop aircraft and outfitted them with full-motion video and signals-intelligence gathering equipment, said a Globalsecurity.org factsheet on the program. They include an L-3 manufactured Wescam MX-15 sensor payload with day/night cameras, high- and low-resolution video and a laser rangefinder and illuminators. The aircraft will also carry a classified signal-intelligence, or eavesdropping, payload.
Kevin Meiners, acting deputy undersecretary of defense for portfolio, programs and resources, said the Liberties will have the first high-definition, full-motion sensor balls. Current unmanned systems do not have high-def, he suggested.
Heithold said the crew will process, exploit and disseminate the information on board and push the information down in real-time to ground forces.
“I don’t want those planes to get there without the intelligence community being able to exploit the [information] that comes off them and get it to someone able to take action on it,” Heithold said. Otherwise, “you’re just burning JP-8 [fuel] for no reason,” he added.
Current plans call for the Air Force to field a fleet of 37 Liberties.
Another manned ISR platform, the U2, is still flying and contributing to the war efforts, Heithold reminded conference attendees.
He recalled a recent incident where a battlefield officer wanted some up-to-date snapshots of an area his troops were about to enter. Through a chat room, he sent the request to an airman stationed at one of the six distributed common ground system nodes the Defense Department has set up to provide 24/7 intelligence capabilities to those in the field. The airman was able to direct the U2 pilot to the area, where he gathered the necessary imagery.
“That vignette happens every day to get the kind of actionable intelligence they need,” Heithold said.