The arrival of MC-12 Liberty reconnaissance planes at Red Flag 12-3, taking place Feb. 27-March 16, marks the first-ever use of the aircraft in the exercise.
The planes, assigned to the 489th Reconnaissance Squadron of Beale Air Force Base, Calif., are manned tactical intelligence and reconnaissance aircraft derived from the Beechcraft King Air.
Lt. Col. Harlie Bodine, squadron commander, said the 489th’s participation in the exercise is a key achievement for both the aircraft, first fielded in 2009, and his unit, which was activated on Aug. 26, 2011.
“The MC-12 had the fastest approval-to-delivery time in the Air Force’s history with the exception of the P-51, a World War II fighter – just eight months from ‘concept to combat,'” Bodine said. “Being in Red Flag not only validates the capability we provide but enables us to train and integrate with a huge list of other weapon systems. We are extremely glad to be here.”
Bodine said Red Flag, conducted on the Nevada Test and Training Range, has evolved from an air-to-air-only exercise to include not just aircraft, but also ground, space and cyber assets from all the DOD branches and several allied nations. Classified as a large force exercise, it provides what Bodine termed “the most robust and most realistic array of opposing force aircraft and integrated air defense threats on any simulated battlefield in the world.”
“Being at Red Flag is critical – I have students from my unit participating right now who will be en route to the theater of operations in 10 days, and they’ll be in combat in 14 days,” Bodine said. “By coming to Flag, they get to exercise and work with every piece of what we refer to as the ‘kill chain’ – all the other ‘moving parts’ of the operation that are required to do the mission and kill targets – before the bullets start flying for real.”
The MC-12’s main purpose is to track high-value or time-sensitive targets. These include elusive threats such as insurgent leaders and one-of-a-kind or mobile weapons systems that may be otherwise difficult to pinpoint. The Liberty also provides tactical intelligence and command and control for air-to-ground operations.
“We specialize in what we call, ‘find, fix, and finish’ – we connect the entire intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance picture from big air to the ‘binoculars view’ on the ground, bring our sensors to bear to get an exact location on the bad guys, and then bring in air assets to achieve the effects the ground commander needs,” Bodine said.
The MC-12’s role in the current Red Flag is mostly limited to “permissive ops” ground support scenarios in which air threats are limited, to give the 489th opportunity to progress in a “walk-run” fashion. However, Bodine said his unit will operate in contested skies to support ground forces in future exercises.
“It will be extremely unlikely that you’ll see a military operation take place in the real world in which ground forces do not play a critical role, and our exercises reflect that,” he said. “While the Liberty is obviously not going to go head-to-head with enemy fighters, we’ll see scenarios where we go into airspace in which threat systems are just outside stand-off distance and we’ll operate in the pockets big enough for us to get in and support the ground commander.”