BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan: Airmen in the 4th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron are “looking for trouble,” using the MC-12W Liberty to bring tactical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR, to ground commanders in Afghanistan.
“We bring a unique capability to the fight,” said Lt. Col. Rob Weaver, 4th ERS director of operations, deployed from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., where he is an A-10 Thunderbolt pilot. “Our mission is to deliver combat airpower and overwatch to the joint fight in theater.”
Since the squadron stood up in December 2009, Airmen in the all-volunteer unit, known as the “Crows,” have flown 130 sorties, logging more than 600 hours. The four-man MC-12 aircrews fly the aircraft, a modified King Air 350 commercial plane, to augment information gathered by other intelligence-collection capabilities operating in theater by providing real-time full-motion video and signals information to help military leaders make battlefield decisions.
“We had an operation where one of our teams received actionable intelligence regarding a potential suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device,” said Special Agent Jeffrey Engel, an agent in Air Force Office of Special Investigations Expeditionary Detachment 2405 and deployed from Langley Air Force Base, Va. “The MC-12 aircrew was able to provide visual intelligence, which enabled us to see the key points on the ground, enter the area safely and apprehend five insurgents before they could evade coalition forces’ custody or use their device against both Afghan and coalition forces.”
“When we first got the intelligence about this operation we needed some validation of the intel we received,” said Lt. Col. Vasago Tilo, the AFOSI E Det. 2405 commander who is deployed from Langley AFB, Va. “Without the MC-12 squadron, this operation would never have been executed and these targets would have never been neutralized. There is no doubt. Executing this operation saved the lives of coalition forces and Afghan citizens.”
For these total-force Airmen with backgrounds in many different aircraft, such as the A-10, E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System, E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, RC-135 Rivet Joint, T-1 Jayhawk and others, becoming an effective special-mission tactical ISR squadron didn’t happen overnight.
First, there were two weeks of training in Atlanta, Ga., including a check ride in an MC-12 simulator. Next, there was a 7-week flying course at Key Field, a Mississippi Air National Guard Base near Meridian, Miss., where the four-person aircrew, comprising one pilot, a copilot, a sensor operator and a crypto operator, get 12 flights aboard the MC-12.
Their 13th flight was in combat.
“With every Airman in this squadron being a volunteer from different aircraft, we had to gel together quickly,” said Colonel Weaver, a native of Seneca, S.C. “As an A-10 pilot, I don’t normally fly with a four-man aircrew, so this has been an adjustment for me. As a team, we have met each challenge as professionals. It’s a true testament to the professionals we have working on the various airframes in the world’s greatest Air Force.”
While the mission is meeting with success, there have been some unique experiences for Airmen flying the Air Force’s newest ISR aircraft.
“Just getting to talk to the (joint terminal attack controller) Airmen on the ground is a new experience for me,” said Staff Sgt. Edward Shepherd, a 4th ERS sensor operator deployed from Tinker AFB, Okla., where he is an E-3 AWACS radio operator. “I get to build a relationship with that guy on the ground and hopefully positively impact his day. That direct contact makes me feel like I am making a difference for those forces on the ground and it is something that fills me with pride.”
“Getting to see the diverse skills from around the Air Force come together to make this mission a success has been great,” said Senior Airman Alvar Lam, a 4th ERS crypto operator deployed from Offutt AFB, Neb., where he is a linguist. “Our diversity is our strength and we have been able to come together and make our strength a strong asset for the ground commanders we serve.”
The MC-12 program was dubbed the Project Liberty Program as a nod to a World War II effort that quickly built and transitioned commercial ships to the fight in Europe, much like how the Air Force fielded the MC-12. Air Force officials plan to increase the MC-12 inventory to 37 by the end of 2010.
“The Airmen and this asset are proving their worth on a daily basis,” Colonel Weaver said. “I hope the MC-12 can find a permanent home base in the U.S. where Airmen can gain more experience on this critical ISR asset. Our Airmen have proven it means trouble for the enemy.”