The U.S. Air Force is flying surveillance missions over northern Nigeria using MC-12W twin turboprops from Project Liberty. The flights are trying to locate more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram. They throw some light on a relatively unknown fleet of ISR aircraft that is currently “owned” by Air Combat Command, but likely to move to Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) next year.
Thirty-seven MC-12Ws based on the Beechcraft King Air 350 (eight aircraft) and 350ER (29 aircraft) were hurriedly acquired between 2008 and 2010 to fill a perceived gap in responsive ISR and close air support to U.S. ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. L-3 Mission Integration was the contractor that modified the basic aircraft by adding the Wescam Mx-15Di full-motion video and targeting sensor, a Sigint system, multiple radios and a dual datalink (line-of-sight and satcom). L-3 has subsequently marketed a similar conversion for export as the Spydr.
The aircraft are forward-deployed to the Centcom and (now also) Africom area of operations from the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale AFB, California. This wing also operates the Air Force U-2 and Global Hawk high-altitude ISR fleets. Two aircrew operate the sensors and can talk directly and relay video to joint tactical air controllers on the ground. The aircraft are still usually dedicated to the support of specific ground formations, often special operations forces. They can laser-designate targets for armed aircraft, typically AH-64 Apaches. But their “take” can also be processed, exploited and disseminated by the Air Force’s Distributed Ground System network.
In its Fiscal Year 2015 budget request, the Air Force outlined plans to move the MC-12W fleet, which now numbers 43 aircraft, from Beale to Hurlburt Field, Florida, the home of AFSOC. There they would replace 21 Pilatus U-28As (PC-12s) that were acquired from 2006 for similar missions. They have also been deployed on Africom missions; one crashed at Djibouti in February 2012.