U.S. Army and Air Force officials admitted the proposed transfer of the MC-12 Liberty program surprised each service when it appeared in a bill passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
It is rare that Congress ever surprises U.S. military leaders, but the proposal has left both services scrambling to figure out how to transfer the program from the Air Force to the Army. Liberty aircraft have collected aerial battlefield surveillance data over Iraq and Afghanistan since 2009.
"I wouldn't use the word shocked, but definitely surprised," said Army Lt. Col. Kodjo Knox-Limbacker, with the Army Intelligence and Security Command's Aviation and Air Sensors operations directorate.
He said the Army expects to know for sure in the next two months if the service is absorbing the Liberty program. No official date has been scheduled for the full Senate to vote on the 2012 defense authorization bill.
The House Armed Services Committee did not include the proposal in its markup of the authorization bill.
Army officials anticipate the Air Force's Liberty aircraft will replace the Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance Surveillance Systems (EMARSS) aircraft that the Army expected to buy, Knox-Limbacker said.
Funding for EMARSS got slashed in defense authorization markups by the House and Senate Armed Services committees. The House proposed cutting $524 million and the Senate $452 million from the $540 million laid out in the 2012 budget request to buy 18 aircraft.
Army EMARSS aircraft and Air Force Project Liberty MC-12s are both enhanced Hawker Beechcraft Super King Air 350s with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensors installed. Each of the twin-engine turboprops costs $17 million, and the Air Force plans a fleet of 37 planes.
"EMARSS and Liberty ships are so similar [that] it makes sense," Knox-Limbacker said.
The Army had planned to replace its RC-12 Guardrail fleet with the EMARSS. The transfer was supposed to be a gradual process, replacing one Guardrail plane for each EMARSS built. However, if the Army absorbs the entire Project Liberty fleet, then the Guardrail would be phased out much more quickly, Knox-Limbacker said.
It's still unclear when the transfer would occur even after the vote on the bill. The amendment in the Senate markup requires incoming Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to submit a report by 2013 "to develop and implement a plan for the orderly transfer" of the fleet. Panetta's report also "must estimate the costs" the government would save by canceling the EMARSS program.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates launched Project Liberty in April 2008, after saying at the Air Force War College that deploying ISR assets was like "pulling teeth." After a brief delay, the Air Force launched its first Project Liberty combat sortie over Iraq in June 2009.
Service leaders had to get creative to form the fleet to meet Gates' demands. Air Force acquisition officials bought the first few Liberty aircraft from private citizens - one from a businessman who had installed a system inside his turboprop to transport wine.
The Air Force announced in April that Beale Air Force Base, Calif., will become the new home of the Liberty program. Three aircraft have arrived at Beale, which will receive five for mission qualification training. The rest of the fleet will remain deployed.
Maj. Chad Steffey, an Air Force spokesman, said the service is waiting for the authorization bill to pass into law before finalizing any plans for the program at Beale.
This isn't the first time the Army's takeover of the program has been proposed. In 2009, the Defense Department proposed transferring the Liberty to the Army and moving the C-27J Spartan twin-engine transport plane from the Army to the Air Force. While the Air Force eventually took control of the C-27J, it also retained control of the Liberty.
When the Air Force took the helm of Project Liberty, it puzzled many Army officials. Army aviation had traditionally taken on the tactical ISR mission while the Air Force has focused on strategic missions. Liberty aircraft fly more tactical missions with ground units.
In their first missions, the Air Force processing, exploitation and dissemination teams struggled while sending intelligence collected by the sensors aboard the Liberty aircraft to ground commanders, an Army official said. Many thought in those first few years that the Air Force and Army would form split teams, with Air Force pilots in the front and soldiers controlling the sensors and making radio calls to units in the back of each plane.
Four airmen fly inside the MC-12 Liberty: two pilots, one sensor operator and one signals intelligence specialist. It's unclear how many airmen would be affected by the move to the Army, since the Liberty airmen are qualified on other airframes.
The Army has flown RC-12 Guardrails since the 1970s and currently flies 136 in different configurations, such as the Medium Altitude Reconnaissance Surveillance System and Aerial Reconnaissance Multi-Sensor.
Knox-Limbacker said the Army is considering different options to train soldiers who will fly and operate the MC-12s if they're transferred. Either the service will allow soldiers to train on the aircraft at a U.S. base, or it will maintain operations in Afghanistan and "do a hand receipt" and provide the training while deployed, he said.
Training will not be the hardest part of the transfer; synchronizing the communications equipment on board the planes with the Army's networks is the larger challenge, Knox-Limbacker said.
"The two aircraft are so similar to what we fly already that the hardest part of the transfer will probably be the comms and making sure we have those right," he said.