Liberty Comes Home

Dec. 21, 2015

Six years after the MC-12W Liberty rushed into combat to fill a pressing need for eyes over the battlefield in Iraq, Project Liberty came to an end at Beale AFB, Calif. On Sept. 16, 2015, crews flew the last MC-12 sortie before Air Combat Command stood down the mission, tranferring the aircraft to the Army, civilian contractors, and a new special operations unit in the Air National Guard.

A month after the last flight at Beale, pilots of the 427th Reconnaissance Squadron and sensor and tactical systems operators from the 306th Intelligence Squadron came home from their final deployment to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan—returning for the first time as a group.

Since the first aircraft was deployed to JB Balad, Iraq, in 2009, aircrews had logged an astonishing 400,000 combat flying hours and more than 79,000 sorties over both Iraq and Afghanistan—more than 1,000 sorties a month.

“Those men and women flew their butts off. … That’s an extraordinary ops tempo that their nation levied upon them and they met that challenge and they were extraordinarily successful,” 9th Reconnaissance Wing Commander Col. Douglas J. Lee told Air Force Magazine in an interview at Beale.

“Seeing a program go start to end in such a short time that also had such an impact—it’s so hard to quantify how many people were saved because there was an MC-12 flying overhead,” added 427th RS Commander Lt. Col. Joseph M. Laws. MC-12 crews put human eyes, as well as highly capable intelligence systems, live video, and sensors over the battlefield, giving ground troops a nearly all-weather capability that remotely piloted aircraft simply could not match.

“No one wants the MC-12 to go anywhere. It’s just finding the right place for that skill set,” explained Laws. “It belongs more in special operations.” Thirteen of the 41-strong fleet are going to the Oklahoma Air National Guard to form a new mission supporting Air Force Special Operations Command. Eight went to the Army for conversion into Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System (EMARSS) aircraft, and contractors will fly the remainder, continuing the mission in Afghanistan.

Early Days

When the MC-12 first went into action, it deployed so quickly—less than a year from drawing board to combat employment—that crews were still figuring out how to use it while flying actual combat missions, said 9th Operations Group Commander Col. Darren B. Halford, who led ACC’s initial stand up of the mission. “We gave them very little guidance. It was all ingenuity, blood, sweat, and tears to figure out how to make that all work.”

Laws, who joined the MC-12 program test flying the aircraft for their initial combat deployment, recalls that in the early days, instructors phoned him from the schoolhouse at Key Field in Meridian, Miss., asking for guidance on using the MC-12’s mission equipment. “I have no idea,” he replied jokingly. The MC-12 came together so speedily that all he could say was, “We tested it, it met all the parameters, good luck with that!”

During the MC-12’s initial deployments to Balad in June 2009 and Bagram six months later the directive was simply to “go get the job done,” and the aircrews just “figured out how to do it,” defining the tactics, techniques, and procedures as they went.

Project Liberty was born out of a Secretary of Defense directive to rapidly increase real-time aerial intelligence gathering capabilities, and it “was thrown together really quickly with people from all across the Air Force,” explained a 427th RS pilot. “They said, ‘Here’s the platform.” It was up to the airmen to figure out how to make it work.

Pulling crew members from many aircraft types and jobs in the Air Force brought a wealth of knowledge and experience that made the MC-12 a potent tool. “Somehow in the magic of taking people from all different aspects of the Air Force, they figured out how to use this special system equipment on the airplane, … to bring all of those forces together to either kill or capture a bad guy, or just keep the friendlies safe,” Laws explained.

Early last year, a 427th pilot flew an MC-12 on one of the most memorable missions of her career, over the mountains, just west of the aircraft’s deployed base at Bagram. She received a radio call, that set her crew on edge, from US forces under fire. They are normally “cool, calm, and collected, … but in this particular instance, there was something about the guy’s voice on the radio” that indicated his team was in mortal danger, she said. The valley was cloaked in low clouds, making it impossible to employ an RPA, so the MC-12 flew over the peaks and into the valley.

“There were mountains above us, which is not a comfortable place to be in as a pilot, but we had to get below the clouds in order to get eyes on” the target, she said. Breaking out of the clouds, her crew spotted the insurgents’ firing position and called in an A-10, swiftly ending the engagement. “The shooting stopped, so just knowing that we were able to play a role in that” made it worth the risk, she said. On another recent mission, a sensor operator spotted a civilian wandering into the target area just after a weapon release. “He called out a ‘shift cold,’ which means that they move the weapon away, and saved the lives of several Afghan citizens,” said the pilot.

Building trust is now a major focus of allied effort. “That’s what we’re trying to do right now—show the Afghan people that we’re not there as conquerors; we’re there to help them protect themselves,” she said. “It was a neat experience to be there and see how well-received that was.”

During the lead-up to the Afghan parliamentary elections, an MC-12 crew flew a night mission to locate and gather intel on a suspected terrorist. The crew relayed information to ground forces that were then able to mount a raid and capture a suicide bomber who was planning to blow himself up at a packed political rally. “This guy was actually supposed to go and blow himself up in the next 12 hours,” recounted the crew’s tactical systems operator. Working in conjunction with the ground troops, the crew “potentially saved hundreds of innocent lives,” the TSO said.

The MC-12 proved ideal for these sorts of missions, moving at “just the right speed for exactly what we need to do,” explained Lt. Col. Shaio Zerba, 306th Intelligence Squadron commander, the unit overseeing MC-12 sensor and tactical systems operators. In addition to spotting improvised explosive devices, watching over convoys and forward operating bases, and observing the enemy’s “pattern of life,” MC-12s have been charged with all manner of unique, and even bizarre, ad hoc taskings. Crews have been asked to track down escaped prisoners, locate abandoned equipment, and try to parse out the allegiance of insurgent bands.

When some 400 Taliban fighters escaped during a mass jailbreak from Kandahar in April 2011, a crew was tasked with locating the jailbirds. “They had me looking for people not wearing shoes, because that’s how we could tell they were escaped convicts,” recalled the crew’s sensor operator.

Each community shaped a different aspect of MC-12’s development. “Airlifters had great insights on crew resource management,” whereas the fighter pilots contributed to developing combat tactics, techniques, and procedures,” especially for coordinating kinetic strikes, Halford observed.

At first, even crew members’ roles were undefined, and airmen completely changed the original concept for conducting battlefield ISR. “When we started out, we thought the pilots were just going to be driving the bus,” noted Laws. Sensor operators were expected to use the camera and talk to the troops, while the tactical systems operator worked the ISR suite “doing his or her own thing,” he said.

Instead, crews quickly began intense collaboration, sharing information, dividing tasks, and working together to put the aircraft in the best position to aid friendlies on the ground. The copilot was replaced by a mission crew commander, with a laptop computer to coordinate the crew and “advise the good guys on the ground,” explained Laws.

The MCC “changed the entire dynamic of how we operated the airplane,” making the crew a cohesive team that understood one another’s roles and could enhance each other’s effectiveness. Though the aircraft were upgraded with improved systems over time, “the biggest upgrade has been the airmen executing the mission,” Laws said.

Final Deployment

Now that the MC-12 is transitioning from ACC to a niche capability in ANG supporting AFSOC, the Air Force is keen on retaining this hard-won expertise. “The MC-12 was the perfect solution” in Iraq and Afghanistan, explained Halford, but without expertise, it’s just a fancy executive aircraft with some sensors.

Figuring out how to conduct coun­t­erinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan was initially a struggle for the Air Force, and as a result, the MC-12 community is working hard to pass on the lessons and tactics to the Army, contractors, and ANG to carry on the mission.

During the final six-month deployment at Bagram, pilots and sensor and tactical systems operators flew jointly crewed missions under Army leadership, until contractors took over. The Army won’t conduct the MC-12’s exact mission, though its EMARSS platforms will remain flying in a similar role.

Many of the MC-12 contractors, however, are airmen who have left the service. The same core cadre of former airmen “are going to be continuing the program, so that’s really the strength of this mission,” said the 427th pilot, who deployed twice on the MC-12, including the final mission last year.

Transitioning from direct combat to the advisory and assistance role in Afghanistan in 2014 didn’t significantly alter the MC-12 mission. What it did change was the mission partners. Army aviators initially began augmenting 9th RW aircrews under Air Force control before swapping roles and taking the lead for the final deployment rotation. “There was a lot of trepidation in the beginning, switching over to Army rules. As it turns out, professional aviators are professional aviators, and they’ve been doing this for a long time, too, so it wasn’t as rough as we thought it might be,” explained Laws.

The transition was eased by Air Force crew members initially teaching the Army operators so that “tactically, it was very much the same” despite the shift from Air Force instructions to Army field manuals, commented the 427th pilot. The two services had cultural differences to overcome, but “it ended up being a tremendous, joint success story,” Halford said.

The informality and integration between Air Force officers and enlisted aircrew was initially a shock to the Army. Airmen are accustomed to cooperating seamlessly with officers in combat, without regard to rank, but Army culture is much more formal, the TSO stated. After flying in mixed aircrews for several missions, the Army enlisted crew overcame their initial hesitancy to direct officers and quickly began to “really mesh as a crew all together,” recalled the TSO.

“At the end of the day, we’re all working together as a crew in order to achieve one goal,” something the Army crew soon warmed to, he said. “The Army clearly has a different approach to some things, but they’re not new to flying Kingairs,” Halford added.

“It’s a pretty incredible relationship we’ve developed with the Army. I don’t know that any other program has ever done anything quite like this,” Laws said. Many of the Army aircrew had previous experience as infantry and were able to give their Air Force partners a “real idea of what the guys on the ground were thinking,” said the 427th pilot.

As US and NATO forces drew down, crews increasingly worked with Afghan National Army troops advised by only a handful of US special operations forces. This added new challenges, especially given Afghans’ “different sense of focus,” as the pilot put it. Unlike US and coalition forces, the Afghans will “stop for smoke breaks whenever they want,” regardless of air support burning fuel overhead as they sit, she observed. That being said, the few advisors’ ability to “get this often ragtag group of people with not a lot of discipline to come together when they needed … was impressive,” she said.

MC-12s were in the thick of the fight until the end, supporting Afghan forces’ attempt to retake the provincial capital of Kunduz after it fell to the Taliban in September—a month before the final crews returned to Beale. They also supported troops in the perennially troubled province of Helmand, where insurgents renewed their offensive against coalition-backed Afghan forces, prompting the Obama Administration, in part, to slow troop withdrawals.

On to Oklahoma

A few days after the final Stateside training sortie, and even before the final aircrews returned from Afghanistan, the Army flew the last MC-12 out of Beale. “It’s really hard to shut down a program,” admitted a sensor operator. “The only thing that makes me feel OK about it is the fact that we’re handing it off” to an Oklahoma ANG unit soon to be designated the 137th Special Operations Wing.

As the 137th Air Refueling Wing, the unit flew its final KC-135 sortie from Tinker AFB, Okla., in June and moved to nearby Will Rogers ANGB, where it took delivery of its first MC-12 in July. Five Active Duty TSOs from Beale are the initial instructor cadre that will begin standing up the new MC-12 schoolhouse at Will Rogers in early 2016. Since the Mississippi Guard ran the initial MC-12 schoolhouse before mission qualification training moved to Beale in 2011, shifting back to the Guard brings it “full circle,” said Zerba, who leads the 306th IS standing up the school.

Since the MC-12 predominantly supported special operations on the ground, AFSOC is the most logical permanent home, and given the small fleet size, the Guard is the ideal host, officials said. As ACC divests the MC-12, crews were most proud of the fact that they saved lives and were linked every step of the way with the troops they worked to protect on the ground, Zerba said. “I would love to be a part of the MC-12 program for the rest of my career because I’m so proud of what it’s accomplished,” added Laws.

Being part of MC-12 from the beginning to the end made the handoff “a bittersweet moment,” Laws said, echoing the sentiments of many of the more than 2,200 airmen who worked on the aircraft.