View Full Version : Air Force spending $1B on surveillance planes

01-24-09, 05:45 AM
Air Force spending $1B on surveillance planes
By DONNA BORAK, The Associated Press

2:48 p.m. January 23, 2009

WASHINGTON — The Air Force soon will fly commercial planes outfitted with surveillance technologies that can help troops in Iraq or Afghanistan detect mines, explosives and other enemy efforts, a senior service official said Friday.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Blair Hansen detailed previously classified plans to reconfigure used and new Hawker Beechcraft Corp. aircraft under a nearly $1 billion contract to support surveillance and reconnaissance operations in both U.S.-led wars and beyond. The first two King Air 350 planes are slated to begin flights by April.

"We always need to know more because of the nature of insurgency ... (and have) more information faster," Hansen, the service's director of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, told reporters at a Pentagon press briefing.

The Air Force said it will buy a total of 37 of the modified MC-12 aircraft, which will carry a crew of four, plus two operators, under the so-called "Project Liberty" program. United Technologies Corp.'s Pratt & Whitney is building the engines for the nearly 47-foot long aircraft.

The planes can carry up to 539 gallons of fuel and reach a maximum speed of roughly 370 miles per hour.

John Pike, a defense analyst and director of GlobalSecurity.org, said it's possible part of the reason the Air Force went public with the program is because some inside the Pentagon may oppose it.

A program in the public eye is "harder to kill" than one that no one knows about, said Pike.

It's still unclear how the Air Force will use the modified planes with unmanned aerial vehicles like the Predators and Reapers, Hansen said, but the service is working to address that issue.

Congress has approved funding to buy 31 of Hawker Beechcraft aircraft. The remaining six planes are expected to be funded as part of the Defense Department's supplemental budget for the global war on terror, which is still working its way through Congress.

The medium-altitude manned aircraft will be equipped with a full motion video and other radar capabilities to provide ground forces with streaming, real-time data to help detect explosive devices, mines and other insurgency efforts.

While such information would be invaluable to ground forces, the aircraft's ability to fly at low altitudes increases the risk of them being shot down over the hills of Afghanistan, Pike said.

Last April, Defense Secretary Robert Gates established a service-wide task force to identify solutions that could provide soldiers in the battlefield with additional surveillance capabilities.

After receiving approval by senior Pentagon officials, the Air Force awarded the deal to Wichita, Kan.-based Hawker Beechcraft in August without holding a competition. Privately held Hawker Beechcraft earlier this week warned its workers to prepare for job cuts that could touch all areas and levels of the company.

Unlike other programs that have been jump-started for efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hansen said "Project Liberty" would "not just be an add-on that they will return." There will be much broader use of the aircraft beyond Iraq and Afghanistan when it comes to defeating terrorism, Hansen said, noting areas like Africa and Latin America.