Available ISR Aircraft –
Surplus USAF MC-12W King Airs – June 2012
Sharing the Wealth: Are ex-USAF MC-12Ws the tactical Intelligence, Surveillance, &
Reconnaissance (ISR) Boost that the RCAF Requires?
By Jim Dorschner 
Ed: Lt-Col Dorschner lays out the advantages of acquiring readily-available
ISR assets in the form of soon-to-be-surplus USAF MC-12W Liberty 'platforms'.
The author notes that similar B200 King Air aircraft operate with MEUF, the
CFB Trenton-based Multi-Engine Utility Flight (by contractor, Aero Support Canada).
We would add that CT-145 King Airs have trained CF pilots for decades. There
was also mysterious mentions of two converted ISR B300 King Airs (under a US Army contract) for Canadian
Forces use in Afghanistan. The point being that the King Air aircraft is hardly
unfamiliar to the CF. The question is: will DND see the opportunity?
Sharing the Wealth: Redundant USAF MC-12Ws are Available to Boost RCAF Capabilites
On 30 May 2012, US Deputy Defence Secretary Ashton Carter stated that, beginning in 2014,
some US Air Force MC-12W Liberty tactical Intelligence, Surveillance,
and Reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft may be withdrawn from service. When that withdrawl
occur, these ISR platforms would become available for use by appropriate allies such as
Canada and Mexico. This could also be an opportunity to enhance regional
capabilities in Central America by establishing a new, multi-national tactical ISR
unit with American – and potentially Canadian – sponsorship.
With the pending withdrawal of US combat forces from Afghanistan from 2014, around
27 of the USAF's 42 MC-12W aircraft will be shifted to Air National Guard
units across the United States. A few other MC-12Ws will be retained in
the USAF's active inventory for training at Beale AFB in California. This leaves a
balance of 10-12 surplus aircraft available for transfer to appropriate allies and/or for
the establishment of a Central America-based regional ISR
The MC-12W was based on the Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350 and developed in 2008
under Project Liberty. According to Dr. Carter, the MC-12W was intended as "very
much of a quick- reaction type of fleet". MC-12Ws have electro-optical and
infrared sensors in belly-mounted turrets (with an integrated laser
illuminator/designator). Imagery collected from those sensors is fed to line-of-sight and
SATCOM datalinks via a Signals Intelligence suite. Optimized for
counter-insurgency and Special Operations Forces ( SOF ) missions in Iraq and
Afghanistan, MC-12Ws are operated by a crew of four: two pilots, an optical sensor
operator, and a signals intelligence specialist. The King Air 'platform' is
relatively simple to fly, operate, and maintain. An MC-12W has significant
endurance/loiter capability and can self-deploy around the world.
RCAF Prospects – Potential Tactical ISR Support for CANSOFCOM
and Regular Forces
Four MC-12Ws in service with the Royal Canadian Air Force would provide a
cost-effective, easily integrated and supported multi-role tactical ISR capability,
principally for SOF support, but also in support of general-purpose forces and as a
valuable asset for international Peace- keeping Operations ( PKO ) and disaster
response in Canada and overseas. Taking advantage of the MC-12W's relatively low
profile, small footprint, and rapid reaction capability, support to Canadian
Special Operations Forces Command ( CANSOFCOM ) would include providing ISR
coverage and serving as an airborne command and control ( C2 ) over-watch
platform for domestic counter-terrorism and international operations as part of a
SOF task force. Missions might include rapid deployment to a conflict zone for
non-combatant personnel evacuation, securing Canadian and 'friendly'
diplomatic missions, or apprehending war crimes suspects.
The same attributes would apply for international PKOs and disaster relief scenarios
such as those undertaken in Darfur or Haiti. For training support for
SOF and to the wider Canadian Forces generally, the MC-12Ws can serve as
surrogate UAV platforms in
restricted airspace [accommodating Transport Canada ] or as integrated
tactical ISR assets in their own right.
Canadian MC-12Ws could be easily blended into the RCAF, bedding down at
CFB Trenton alongside two leased King Air B200 utility aircraft [of
the Multi-Engine Utility Flight ]
already there to form a new unit, ' 418 Special Operations Squadron '. Sufficient
ISR expertise exists in the Royal Canadian Air Force already to permit a rapid
transition to full operational capability.
Competition from the South – Prospects for Multi-National MC-12W Use
in Latin America
Further south, the Central American nations are the latest 'frontline' in the 'war'
to combat the corrosive influence of Mexican and South American
crime cartels. Assistance and guidance from the US and Canada has allowed
those Central American countries to improve individual national capabilities along with
enhance cross-border coordination. A small force of MC-12W aircraft would be ideal
platforms for monitoring the vast swathes of rugged, thinly-populated terrain
in Central America where, at present, crime cartel operatives are now busy establishing
transshipment 'lily pads' in the form of covert airstrips, drop zones, boat landings, and
storage hide sites in Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Panama.
As few as three-to-four MC-12Ws operated by multi-national crews could
provide a critical level of standardized ISR coverage and airborne C2 capability
in the region. Such an ISR force would support the kind of fast moving,
intelligence-driven, cross-border, joint, multi-national and multi-agency operations
required to counter the cartel inroads that undermine democratic governments, threaten
public security, and inhibit development throughout Central America.
The unexpected availability of 'off-the-shelf ' ISR assets presents a
windfall opportunity for the Canadian Forces. The base King Air aircraft has served the
CF in one form or another for decades. The MC-12W Liberty 'platform' is
combat-proven yet easy to operate and maintain. Should DND move quickly to secure
these available ISR assets, the CF would be in a position to quickly build up a flexible
and dynamic SOF support capability with potential applications across the
spectrum of international and domestic requirements. Because the US government is motivated
to make budget cuts, relatively new ex-USAF MC-12Ws will become available at a purchase
price comparably lower than any available ISR alternatives, manned or unmanned.
 Lt-Col James Dorschner (Ret.) served with the US Army's Military Intelligence Branch.
He is now a Special Correspondent for Jane's Defence Weekly
and Jane's Intelligence Review.