Secretive U.S. Spy Plane Crashes in Iraq
Accident highlights shadowy parts of the fight against Islamic State
When Talal Abdulqadir woke up on March 5, he probably didn’t expect his farm in northern Iraq would end up crawling with American troops guarding a crashed aircraft. In an instant, the green field outside the town of Kawrgosk put on full display some of the more shadowy elements of Washington’s fight against Islamic State.
The apparent spy plane crashed after reportedly suffering a mechanic failure. Heavily-armed U.S. commandos rushed to the scene in helicopters to rescue the four-man crew and secure the area. No one was injured the accident.
“The plane was flying very low and its propellers were not working,” an unnamed local resident told reporters from the Kurdish news network Rudaw. “American soldiers came soon afterwards and searched the area. They took away the passengers.”
We know very little about the plane itself. Owing to its unassuming civilian paint job and private registration code, observers initially mistook the aircraft for a transport plane — and that’s entirely the point.
Both the U.S. Army and the Air Force operate fleets of seemingly innocuous cargo haulers and small flying spies that transport Special Operations Forces and scan for insurgents and terrorists, respectively. Lacking traditional camouflage paint jobs, the planes are less likely than traditional warplanes to draw unwanted attention as they fly in and out of public airports and small landing strips for sensitive missions around the world.
— Rudaw English (@RudawEnglish) March 5, 2016
In this case, a cursory online search for the number on the side — N6351V — links the twin-engine Beechcraft to the Army. More detailed digging via FlightGlobal’s Ascend aviation information tool returned the message, “You currently do not have access to this content.”
However, an official Army contract document identifies the plane as an MC-12W Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System — a.k.a., EMARSS — based at Hunter Army Air Field in Georgia as of July 2015.
It’s not clear when the ground combat branch took charge of N6351V. The Air Force was clearly the original owner. Starting in 2009, the flying branch bought a fleet of more than 40 MC-12W spy planes to help meet ever-increasing demands for intelligence over battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It called the Beechcrafts after their project code name, “Liberty.” As the U.S. presence in Afghanistan wound down, the Air Force decided to give away the Liberty planes. Beginning in October 2015, the Army took a batch of eight of the MC-12Ws in order to convert them to the EMARSS standard, adding some additional surveillance equipment.
Somewhere along the line, some of the MC-12Ws apparently also adopted civilian guises. Aviation enthusiast Joe Baugher’s detailed database of U.S. military aircraft serial numbers notes that the particular aircraft that wound up in pieces in northern Iraq adopted its nebulous private registration on Aug. 8, 2012.
By 2019, the Army expects to have four different types of EMARSS planes, all with various types of surveillance gear, according to one unclassified briefing. Unless the plane has received additional modifications, this particular MC-12 sports — at the very least — gear that can scoop up enemy radio chatter and powerful video cameras for scanning down below.
The ex-Air Force MC-12Ws will get new Army-specific computer systems and other equipment. The spy systems will remain largely unchanged for the original. When the conversions are finished, the service plans to rename these particular aircraft “MC-12S-2.”
Still, we don’t know what unit owns the aerial spook or what it was doing near Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region. Hunter is home to both the 224th Military Intelligence Battalion and the 3rd Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
A spokesman at the public affairs office for Fort Stewart and Hunter told War Is Boring that the aircraft does not belong to the 224th. They offered no additional information about the plane or its assignment.
While the crash offered an interesting glimpse into the more secretive parts of the campaign against Islamic State, it’s only the latest in a string of operations and incidents involving American commandos. Northern Iraq — and Erbil, in particular — is a a hotbed of special operations.
On Aug. 13, 2014, American commandos flew to Mount Sinjar, then under siege by Islamic State, in order to check on members of the Yazidi minority group and figure out whether the Pentagon should attempt an evacuation.
Before sending the troops, Air Force cargo planes had dropped food and water to the Yazidis. In the end, Kurdish troops cleared a path so the civilians could escape to safety.
On Nov. 14, 2014, the Pentagon’s top command in the Middle East posted online a video depicting specialized Army helicopters flying over Iraq. U.S. Central Command quickly yanked the video after it was brought to its attention.
Almost a year later, American and Kurdish commandos stormed into an Islamic State prison near Hawija in Kirkuk province. Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, a member of the Army’s elite and super-secret Delta Force, died during the Oct. 22, 2015 mission.
“We won’t hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against ISIL, or conducting such missions directly whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground,” Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Oct. 27, 2015. ISIL is one of a number of commonly-used acronyms for Islamic State.
On Dec. 1, 2015, Carter announced plans to send to Iraq a new team of commandos dubbed the “Expeditionary Targeting Force.” The group will reportedly work with Iraqi and Kurdish troops to hunt down and either kill or capture terrorist leaders.
“That creates a virtuous cycle of better intelligence, which generates more targets, more raids and more momentum,” Carter explained in a statement. “This force will also be in a position to conduct unilateral operations into Syria.”
Earlier in March, the Pentagon confirmed that this force had already captured at least two militants and were grilling them for more information. The crashed EMARSS spy plane might have been working with these specialists to track more Islamic State members.
And it’s worth noting that, the day before the accident, Kurdish troops came under attack by Islamic State fighters outside of Mosul, farther to the west. The airborne spooks may have been looking for other potential ambushes.
For Abdulqadir, the situation is slightly simpler. “I admire the role of American forces and coalition states in supporting Peshmerga and protecting Kurdistan Region,” the farmer told Rudaw. “But unfortunately, it destroyed part of my farming land and I would appreciate it if the Americans would compensate me.”