After a secretive spy plane crashed in Northern Iraq on March 5, journalists rushed to try and identify the aircraft. In addition to highlighting hidden parts of the fight against Islamic State, the accident focused new attention on a long-standing U.S. Army effort to improve their fleet of aerial spooks. Starting in 2006, the ground combat branch had rushed out to hire private companies to fly surveillance missions – mostly hunting for roadside bombs and other hazards – in Iraq and then Afghanistan. Looking to consolidate this increasingly diverse and complicated collection of so-called “quick reaction capabilities”, the service started its own internal program.
More than a decade later, the Enhanced-Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System (EMARSS) is now actually at least four different systems, according to an official briefing. In total, the Army plans to convert 24 planes to one version or another. The four original prototypes will become “S models” focused on signals intelligence, missions like scooping up enemy radio chatter and locking onto to cell phones. On top of that, the planes will have powerful night vision cameras. The Army will turn another eight ex-U.S. Air Force MC-12W Liberty planes into a similar “M version”. While the details are classified, the two types will differ in the exact kind of listening gear on board. In addition, eight additional “G variants” will have infrared cameras, plus LIDAR gear and other equipment that can spot buried bombs and points of interest on the ground. The Army purchased these airframes from contractors. Lastly, the ground combat branch will turn four more previously private planes into “V types”. Northrop Grumman’s ground-scanning Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar – commonly referred to by the acronym VADER – is the key component on these final aircraft.
In each case, the aircraft carrying the various intelligence gathering setups is a version of Beechcraft’s popular Super King Air. Known as the C-12 at the Pentagon, this twin-engine turboprop has become practically an industry standard for small spy planes.
Regardless of variant, each EMARSS plane will have the same cockpit layout, satellite communications gear and data links, computers and defensive equipment, such as missile warning sensors and flare launchers. The Army hopes to have the conversions finished by 2019. The service will then rename all the aircraft MC-12S.
On top of that, the aircraft that went down outside the town of Kawrgosk in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region might not actually be related to the project. One contract document lists the civilian-registered plane – and a second similar aircraft – as an MC-12W EMARSS based at Hunter Army Air Field in Georgia. While this would suggest the spook could be one of the future “S models”, the table separately lists the eight planes the Air Force handed over to the Army almost two years ago. When asked, the shared public affairs office for both Fort Stewart and Hunter had no information available on either aircraft or what unit was flying them. On the surface, this plan seems to be at odds with the original idea of consolidating the total number of systems. However, the ground combat branch settled on a similar process when it adopted the older Guardrail/Common Sensor spy planes nearly 30 years ago.
The Army rushed the very first of these planes to South Korea in 1988. Due to demand, these aircraft arrived without many of the planned upgrades. After a decade of work, military intelligence soldiers were flying four slightly different variants. To make up for the limits of communications gear at the time, the fleet included three special RC-12Q satellite relay versions. After three decades of service, the Army finally plans to pare the Guardrail fleet down to just one type, the definitive and obtusely titled RC-12X+, sometime in the next two years. Of 28 older aircraft, the ground combat branch will keep just five on hand to serve as trainers.
And by choosing roll up various existing equipment into the EMARSS program, the Army finally gets the project moving after years of delays and confusion. As of June 2010, one manual described the planes as just another quick reaction capability. Six months later, the ground combat branch hired Boeing to build new production systems. But after competing companies protested the decision, the Government Accountability Office told the service to review deal. Soured on the project, when it proposed its 2013 budget more than year later, the Army announced it was cancelling EMARSS to help cut costs. The four MC-12S prototypes would go to the Air Force. The ground combat branch explained the deal would save them approximately $1.2 billion.
At a press briefing at the Pentagon on Feb. 13, 2012, a reporter asked how the ground combat branch could meet the demand for intelligence gathering without the planes. “I can’t really speak to anything further on recon aircraft”, was all Barbara Bonessa, Deputy Director, Army Budget, would say to reporters. As it turned out, the Army did need EMARSS. By March 2013, the service had changed tack again, asking defense companies to provide cost estimates and other information on what it would take to build as many as 12 of the airborne spies. After another year of wrangling, the Air Force decided not to take the existing test aircraft, either. Instead, the flying branch would send eight MC-12Ws to the Army as they cut that entire fleet from their inventory. By July 1, 2015, the Army had 26 different aircraft slated for the EMARSS project at three different bases across the United States. Initially, the ground combat branch had expected the first types to arrive at units sometime between the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013.
In the face of those delays and with so much money and time already spent, making less radical modifications to this fleet definitely made more sense than trying to build even more planes. The upgraded Guardrails and improved, larger RO-6A Airborne Reconnaissance Low will round out this important fleet. And if EMARSS continues to progress like Guardrail did, the planes are likely to become more and more similar as the Army buys additional upgrades over the coming years.