In a Defense Department world where multi-billion-dollar contracts for aircraft will likely first net you long waits, missed deadlines and demands for millions more bucks before a plane appears on the horizon, the Air Force’s latest counter-intelligence aircraft is an anomaly.
From the time the Air Force contracted for its first order of MC-12W Libertys until one was flying a mission over Afghanistan was just eight months, says Lionel G. Smith, director, Strategic Development Special Programs for L3 Communications.
That’s the power of modifying an existing aircraft, in this case the Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350 – long a favorite plane of the well-to-do. Those ordered by the Air Force, however, swap luxury accommodations for sophisticated ISR technology.
“It costs about $7 million [per plane] from Hawker Beechcraft, and about $10 million in modifications. From contract to combat was about eight months,” Smith said Sept. 15 at the Air Force Association's Air & Space Symposium in Maryland. L3’s integrated systems division manages the modifications.
The plane, with a crew of four – pilot, co-pilot, signals intel systems operator and full-system video operator – flew its first mission from Balad Air Base, Iraq, in June. During 300 missions, it has a mission capable rate of 98 percent, Smith said.
The MC-12W is a response to Defense Secretary Robert Gates' call for increased ISR support for ground combat troops, Smith said. The Air Force plans to field a fleet of 38 Libertys, most of them built into the ER, or extended range, version of the Hawker Beechcraft plane.
Colin Clark spoke with Air Force public affairs folks about this plane several weeks ago and they said the hardest part about getting these planes ready was the fact that some of the planes were bought from wealthy owners who had modified the planes in unique ways. The Air Force had to strip out out all sorts of exclusive gear, pull out partitions and generally strip the planes down to install the ISR gear.