MC-12: Wine ferry to drug hunter

Air Guardsmen will hunt drug cartels in the service's super secret turboprops bought to fly over Iraq and Afghanistan.

The same turboprops the Air Force first bought from rich doctors and businessmen to collect intelligence over Iraq and Afghanistan will now fly counter narcotics missions over the U.S.-Mexico border, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley told Congress Tuesday.

The Air Force’s fleet of MC-12s will move from active duty units to the Air National Guard in 2014. Guard units in Indiana, Connecticut, Mississippi and Texas will receive the 42 aircraft the service has bought over the past four years. Airmen from the Guard unit at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, Texas, will most likely fly the brunt of the counter narcotics missions.

Air Force officials bought the MC-12s as part of Project Liberty after former Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered the service to stop dragging its feet and fast-track intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets to the war zone.

Ground commanders at that point had fallen in love with unmanned drones and the persistent surveillance they provided for future raids or security. Air Force leaders wanted to add more manned aircraft that could carry sensors over the battlefield.

The MC-12 is a militarized version of the Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350 outfitted with imagery and signal intelligence sensors. Air Force acquisition officials bought the first models from private owners to include a doctor who used to ferry wine between his homes in Texas and Mexico City.

Four years later the doctor’s plane and others like it will return to Texas. However, the airmen inside will now hunt drug cartels rather than transferring an expensive wine collection to Mexico.