The Army’s Latest Spy Planes Are Flying Hundreds of Hours Overseas
Three of four MC-12S variants are gathering intelligence in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
Three of the four versions of the U.S. Army’s latest spy plane, the Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System, or EMARSS, are now flying hundreds of hours a month over Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Central Asia. The service says the full fleet should be ready for aerial intelligence units by the middle of 2018.
As of Oct. 19, 2017, the geo-intelligence, signals intelligence, and Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar (VADER) versions were operating in the regions of the globe were U.S. Africa Command, U.S. Central Command, and U.S. Southern Command oversee U.S. military activities, according to the Army’s Program Executive Office for Intelligence, Electronic Warfare, and Sensors, which manages the program. In March 2017, just the signal snooping type was conducting missions in Africa and Latin America.
Brandon Pollachek, a spokesperson for the Army office, told The War Zone in an Email that the deployed aircraft collectively were in the air for approximately 800 hours a month outside of the contiguous United States. Citing operational security, he declined to say how many EMARSS planes were overseas, what units were flying them, or in support of what missions.
As of 2015, the Army had a total of 24 EMARSS aircraft or aircraft it was converting to one of the four configurations. There are eight geo-intelligence EMRASS-Gs, four signals intelligence EMARSS-S, and four VADER-equipped EMARSS-Vs. Though the equipment varies from type to type, each variant uses a version of the twin engine Beechcraft 350-series King Air, known as the MC-12S, as the base platform.
We’ve discussed the EMARSS-S and -V types in detail before, with the signals intelligence version being able to find and record enemy transmissions, while the VADER radar can produce detailed radar imagery over a wide area. Both aircraft also have a turret with electro-optical and infrared cameras.
The EMARSS-G is another wide-area surveillance version that has a powerful electro-optical camera that can either record low-grade video or take higher resolution still pictures covering more 12 square miles at a time. Analysts can then put the imagery together to form even large “mosaic” maps to track even minute changes, such as apparent recently disturbed terrain suggesting the presence of an improvised explosive device.
As with the other EMARSS types, these plans have the camera turret, as well. At least some have or will feature a laser imaging system that can detect objects buried near the surface of the ground, again an important tool for spotting roadside bombs and other potential hazards.
The final eight multi-purpose EMARSS-M, which have yet to see overseas service, will be similar to the EMARSS-S with signals intelligence equipment combined with the sensor turret. The Army is modifying MC-12W Liberty aircraft to create this type. These came second-hand from the U.S. Air Force, which had bought the planes in 2008 after a review by then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates highlighted the need for more surveillance aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the face of budget cuts, that service subsequently transferred the entire fleet to the Air National Guard, U.S. Special Operations Command, and the U.S. Army.
All of the EMARSS aircraft combine their sensors with satellite data links to transmit the information back to base or directly to troops on the ground, consoles directly linked to the controversial Distributed Common Ground System – Army (DCGS-A) intelligence data network, and a software suite that can readily accept updates and upgrades known as Big Iron. There's a clear intention to make the aircraft as modular as possible so that they can rapidly incorporate new sensors and equipment in the future.
The King Air, which is relatively cheap to operate and maintain, has long been a popular aircraft for the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance role, especially within the Army. The U.S. military has and continues to employ contractors flying similar types, as well.
The Army also saved more money – and the EMARSS program itself, which had become something of a saga by 2013, a story you can read about in detail here – by buying some of the King Air-based spy planes straight from the contractors it had previously hired to fly the missions. These became the EMARSS-G and -V variants.
And it’s not surprising the Army has already put these planes to work. The new MC-12S fleet is in the process of replacing older RC-12H, K, N, and P Guardrail Common Sensor (GRCS), all of which again used the King Air platform, but only had the ability to locate and monitor enemy communications and other signals.
But despite a number of common self-protection features, including missile warning sensors and decoy flares, these aircraft are best suited to lower threat environments. Though they can be risky for troops on the ground, the terrorists and militants the U.S. military is targeting in Latin America and Africa in particular have very limited anti-aircraft capabilities.
Even in Iraq and Afghanistan, groups like ISIS and the Taliban have not proved to be an insurmountable threat to similar aircraft such as the Army’s late model RC-12X GRCS aircraft, the Air National Guard’s MC-12W Liberties – yet more intelligence gathering planes with the King Air at their core. Contractors have also been flying Beechcraft-based surveillance aircraft in support of Joint Special Operations Command missions in these areas, such as the one that crashed in Iraq in March 2016.
The value of having these planes in the sky during these operations is clear, though, especially in large parts of Africa, where there are few population centers, let alone functional local security institutions. Just mapping these areas to begin with can be a nightmare for a central government with limited resources. Keeping tabs on highly mobile groups of militants, such as the one that ambushed American troops in the West African country of Niger earlier in October 2017, requires persistent surveillance over large areas.
There are already significant questions over whether the U.S. personnel and their Nigerien partners had adequate manned and unmanned surveillance capabilities before and during the incident. With more resources in place, they might have assessed the risk of that mission differently.
Of course, it’s a truism that there is always a high demand for intelligence and that American commanders would always prefer to have more of it if possible. The Army is clearly making sure to get the EMARSS aircraft out into the field as quick as it can to help out.
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