Small U.S. Air Force Spy Plane Spotted in Northern Iraq
MC-12Ws can see enemies in the dark and snoop on radio chatter
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
It’s no secret that the Pentagon has been flying manned spy planes and drones around Iraq and Syria to snoop on Islamic State terrorists. Now, another small U.S. Air Force aerial spook has arrived at Erbil International Airport in northern Iraq.
On Jan. 1, 2017, the Iraqi Air Force posted pictures online showing an MC-12W Liberty parked at Erbil. The small plane shared space with one of Baghdad’s An-32 transport planes — which double as bombers — and two Rafale fighter bombers, likely from the French Air Force.
The Pentagon has been particularly tight-lipped about exactly what sort of aircraft and other equipment American troops are employing in the fight against Islamic State. But there were already clues to this latest deployment.
In 2009, the Air Force got the first MC-12Ws. After more than five years of occupying Iraq, the Pentagon wanted even more spy planes in the air to watch for insurgents.
Based on the twin-engine C-12 utility plane, the Liberties have powerful cameras that could see in the dark and equipment to spot, listen in on and record enemy communications. Using satellite data links, crews could quickly send that information back to base.
After more than five years of operations, the Air Force decided to send the remaining planes to the Air National Guard, U.S. Special Operations Command and the U.S. Army. In April 2015, the Oklahoma Air National Guard’s 137th Special Operations Wing received its first Liberty.
By 2016, the 137th was the only Air Force unit still flying the MC-12W. In October 2016, members of the wing prepared to depart to unspecified locations in “Southwest Asia.”
“Nearly 140 … airmen have deployed or are deploying to nine different locations in Southwest Asia,” according to an article in the July-December edition of Air Observer, the 137th’s internal magazine. “Our forces will
be working across 20 countries with multiple airframes and multiple missions amongst various branches of the U.S. military and international military forces.”
While we don’t know where the wing’s aircraft went, the Pentagon routinely uses “Southwest Asia” to refer to a constellation of bases across the Arabian Peninsula. This includes sites in Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
It is possible that the 137th’s MC-12Ws were officially assigned to one of these air bases and only temporarily in Erbil. The same article noted that some of the Liberties were headed to hunt militants in Afghanistan, as well.
With a range of 2,400 miles, the MC-12Ws would be able to fly to and from the Persian Gulf to northern Iraq. But unlike many Air Force aircraft, the Liberties can not refuel in mid-air to extend their flight time.
Flying out of Erbil would give the crews more time to loiter in the area looking for terrorists. The city sits just 50 miles from Mosul, where Iraqi troops and Kurdish Peshmerga continue their fight to clear out Islamic State militants for good.
Since Baghdad announced its offensive to retake the city in October 2016, American and other coalition aircraft have been particular active. Large, airliner-sized RC-135 River Joint spy planes and EC-130H Compass Call jamming aircraft supported the aerial campaign.
Flying lower and closer the action, the MC-12W is an understandable addition. “We are directly involved in the dismantling of radical extremism,” Tyler Woodward, a public affairs airman from the 137th, told Air Observer.
With the Liberties, the 137th’s pilots might have taken over for other units, too. American commandos had been flying at least one similar aircraft in northern Iraq from some time.
But in March 2016, the U.S. Army flying spook — sporting an inconspicuous civilian paint scheme — crashed outside the town of Kawrgosk northwest of Erbil. The Pentagon quickly dismantled it in the field and trucked it away.
The Army has released little additional information about the incident or what the plane was doing specifically. In comparison, the two-tone gray paint job and clear U.S. insignia make it clear that the aircraft in Erbil is one of the 137th’s aircraft.
In addition, it’s not clear whether the 137th’s deployment is linked directly to the Mosul offensive. The Pentagon has made it clear that it expects Islamic State to continue fighting to the very end, even after the group loses its de facto capital in Iraq.
In December 2016, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top American officer in charge of the campaign against Islamic State, told The Daily Beast it could take at least two more years to finally break the terrorists. By Jan. 3, 2017, Iraqi forces only claimed control of two thirds of “east Mosul” after months of fighting — and dying — in the city.
And if American troops are still supporting Iraqi efforts in 2018, the 137th’s small spy planes — or similar aircraft from other units — could just as easily be in the air keeping an eye on the fighting.