The U.S. Army Has More Than a Dozen Spy Planes in South Korea
Fleet keeps its sensors pointed north
While a most news focuses on U.S. Air Force spy planes and drones in East Asia, the U.S. Army has more than a dozen aerial spooks in South Korea. This fleet of relatively small planes can hoover up radio transmissions and detect underground tunnels.
On Aug. 21, the ground combat branch released information on its so-called “Special Electronic Mission Aircraft” on FedBizOpps, the U.S. government’s contracting website. The Army is looking to hire contractors to help keep the flying spies running.
According to a table of spy planes and support aircraft by location, the Army has eight RC-12X Guardrails, three EO-5C Airborne Reconnaissance Lows and three “Saturn Arch” planes situated at Camp Humphreys less than 100 miles south of South Korea’s capital Seoul. The 3rd Military Intelligence Battalion flies these aircraft.
The Guardrail Common Sensor system – a.k.a. GRCS – on board the twin-engine RC-12Xs can scoop up radio chatter and other electronic signals and locate the source of the transmissions. An official Army handbook released by transparency group Public Intelligence offers more detail:
GRCS is a tactical airborne signals intelligence collection and precision targeting system. The GRCS consists of seven RC-12X aircraft, a Guardrail Ground Baseline exploitation and dissemination center, and a mission operations center. The mission is usually conducted with up to three aircraft in a synchronized constellation to optimize coverage and location accuracies at altitudes up to 35,000 [feet mean sea level] for durations of up to five-and-a-half hours. … GRCS may be deployed within hours of being tasked with an urgent/ad hoc mission supporting dynamic tasking in flight.
With eight planes, American commanders in South Korea would have some leeway if one of the RC-12Xs broke down. The Army is also planning to replace the GRCS with a new arrangement called the Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System that can listen in on enemy communications and watch their movements through powerful video cameras.
Originally named the RC-7B, the three EO-5Cs are the latest versions of the Airborne Reconnaissance Low system, or ARL. In 1996, the Army sent the very first of these four-engine ARL-Multifunction planes to the Korean Peninsula.
Nicknamed Crazy Hawk, the aircraft combined the electronic and optical spying gear of earlier models with long-range radars. An official report available via GlobalSecurity.org adds the following:
The [ARL-M] is a cost effective and versatile multifunction, day/night, all weather airborne reconnaissance system. It provides tactical commanders with near real-time airborne communications intelligence and Imagery Intelligence collection and designated area surveillance. As a force projection asset, the ARL is self-deployable and self-sustaining for 7-10 days. The system is designed for forward deployment to host countries and can provide an immediate down link to the commander and warfighter and disseminate intelligence products.
We know less about the secretive Saturn Arch aircraft. In 2010, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency hired contractors to fly their own planes with this system installed over hot spots around the world. The platform of choice was the de Havilland Canada DHC-8, or Dash 8.
Three years later, the Army announced it was taking over.
While information on the setup is scarce, Army officials explained the planes were equipped with hyperspectral cameras in response to questions taken at a hearing before the House Appropriations Committee in March 2014. Hyperspectral gear records electromagnetic wavelengths to create a three-dimensional image of the ground below.
Used in the civilian world for spotting buried oil and mineral deposits, these systems can just as easily find improvised explosive devices. Over Korea, the aircraft could scan for tunnels or similar subterranean facilities.
During the next few years, the Army hopes to buy these private planes, along with other similar setups, to replace the aging ARLs. Combined with the upcoming EMARSS aircraft, American commanders in South Korea will no doubt keep putting these aerial spies to good use.