The Air Force is looking at how to fly prop-driven spy planes in high-threat environments

We’ve been hearing for years now that the U.S. military’s crop of slow-moving spy planes fielded for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — ranging from MQ-9 Reaper drones to manned MC-12 Liberties — will be totally useless in a fight against an adversary armed with sophisticated radars and anti-aircraft missiles (often labeled anti-access/area denial ...

U.S. Air Force
U.S. Air Force
U.S. Air Force

We've been hearing for years now that the U.S. military's crop of slow-moving spy planes fielded for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- ranging from MQ-9 Reaper drones to manned MC-12 Liberties -- will be totally useless in a fight against an adversary armed with sophisticated radars and anti-aircraft missiles (often labeled anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) weapons).

This, of course, is how the U.S.  Air Force and Navy are justifying the development of a host of stealthy strike and spy jets (manned and unmanned), missiles and electronic warfare weapons designed to fight countries equipped with sophisticated weapons designed to keep U.S. forces far from their borders.

However, the Air Force's spy arm -- officially called the Air Force Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) Agency -- is experimenting with flying low and slow prop-driven spy planes in skies where advanced air defenses are present. In late February, the agency sent several squadrons of Air Force intelligence assets to play in the service's legendary air combat exercise known as Red Flag over the Nevada desert.

We’ve been hearing for years now that the U.S. military’s crop of slow-moving spy planes fielded for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — ranging from MQ-9 Reaper drones to manned MC-12 Liberties — will be totally useless in a fight against an adversary armed with sophisticated radars and anti-aircraft missiles (often labeled anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) weapons).

This, of course, is how the U.S.  Air Force and Navy are justifying the development of a host of stealthy strike and spy jets (manned and unmanned), missiles and electronic warfare weapons designed to fight countries equipped with sophisticated weapons designed to keep U.S. forces far from their borders.

However, the Air Force’s spy arm — officially called the Air Force Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) Agency — is experimenting with flying low and slow prop-driven spy planes in skies where advanced air defenses are present. In late February, the agency sent several squadrons of Air Force intelligence assets to play in the service’s legendary air combat exercise known as Red Flag over the Nevada desert.

"One of the things that we need to figure out is how much risk would we have to take to fly airborne ISR assets … in a non-permissive environment," said Col. Mary O’Brien, commander of the Air Force’s 70th ISR Wing during a speech late last week. "Initially, we had said, ‘well you could never fly them because there would be risk.’ But one of the things that you can practice at Red Flag is you can build a package that includes defenses and then see."

The agency managed to successful fly a propeller-driven MC-12 Liberty — based on Beechcraft’s civilian King Air — to collect intelligence in the face of a simulated advanced air defense network that featured Soviet-designed SA-6 surface-to-air missiles.

"It was not shot down but that’s a case of one," said O’Brien. "It made us say, ‘this should be perhaps an exercise objective in a future Red Flag."

(While the MC-12 is a slow, twin turboprop of the type you’d see at your average small town airport, it might help that the SA-6 is a 1970s-vintage system used by dozens of countries that the United States has had decades to figure out how to defeat.)

She went on to say that while advanced enemy air defenses would pose a big threat to planes like the MC-12, U.S. forces may be able to provide such planes with protection for just long enough to collect some pieces of vital intelligence.

"How long do we need to operate in that environment?" asked O’Brien. "Maybe you don’t need air supremacy and maybe you only need air superiority for this amount of time depending on what you want to do." 

The whole point of sending prop-driven ISR planes into the fight is  getting people to think about the notion that "hey, we don’t need to sit everything on the ramp that we used in Iraq and Afghanistan…. Let’s start thinking about" how these aircraft might play a role in a future fight.

She wouldn’t say what type of protection the Liberty had as it flew its mission, it could have been anything from fighter escorts who were hunting down the enemy radar and missile sites to advanced electronic warfare gear that jammed enemy sensors or some combination of both.

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.

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