A recent contracting announcement has confirmed that a U.S. military spy plane that crashed in Iraq two years ago was part of small, secretive fleet supporting American special operators around the world, including elements of the shadowy Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC. Thanks to those documents and official statements from U.S. Special Operations Command we now have a good understanding of the capabilities these aircraft offer, as well as plans to upgrade them with additional sensors and equipment, including defenses against GPS jamming.
The modified Beechcraft King Air 350ER in question, with the U.S. civil registration code N6351V, was one of U.S. Special Operations Command’s Tactical Airborne Multi-Sensor Platforms, or STAMP aircraft, according to a contracting notice the U.S. Army posted on FedBizOpps, the U.S. government's main contracting website.
In the U.S. military’s latest budget request for the 2019 fiscal year, which it released in February 2018, the command asked for $5 million to continue supporting these aircraft and pay for a series of upgrades. This was down from nearly $16 million in requested spending for the project in the previous fiscal cycle.
In addition to N6351V, the STAMP fleet included two King Air 300-series types, with the registration codes N80BZ and N166BA, which are well known to plane spotters using online flight tracking software. All three are of a distinct configuration from a slew of other U.S. military Beechcraft intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms, though they offer many of the same capabilities.
In 2017, the special operators added a modified de Havilland Canada Dash-8, N8200L to the fleet. The final aircraft, another Dash-8, N8200R, will enter service in May 2018, a SOCOM public affairs officer told The War Zone in an Email.
The Army technically owns and is responsible for maintaining the planes with contractors performing the actual work. A mix of private contractors and uniformed special operators fly the planes and man the sensors on actual missions. All five planes were previously both contractor owned and operated. They continue to wear a variety of civilian-style paint schemes to help them operate discreetly, especially from civilian airports.
While the complete configuration of the twin-engine Beechcraft King Airs remains unclear, we do know that it includes an L-3 WESCAM MX-15-series sensor turret with electro-optical and infrared full-motion video cameras and a signals intelligence suite known as Nebula. This arrangement has become almost the default standard for planes of this type in U.S. military service, with other U.S. government agencies, and with foreign military forces.
SOCOM’s 2019 fiscal year budget request specifically asks for money to replace Nebula with an improved system called Tin Cup with the possibility to add yet another piece of equipment, called Rattler, on top of that setup. Though we don’t know the exact specifications of any this equipment, it is almost certain they allow the aircraft’s crew to locate and monitor hostile communications transmissions.
They may also provide the ability to geo-locate certain emissions, especially from cell phones, which the U.S. military and Intelligence Community have increasingly used to track particular individuals of interest. There are also emerging devices that allow aerial platforms to spoof wireless networks, allowing analysts to actually penetrate more deeply into those devices remotely.
This could allow operators to extract or insert data and otherwise manipulate software or hardware, including turning on webcams. One system from Leidos is reportedly small enough that an MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone can carry it inside an underwing pod, which would be more than compact enough to fit inside a modified Beechcraft King Air.
The final Tin Cup system could have a secondary electronic warfare function to jam enemy transmissions, too. There is at least one reference to a Rattler electronic attack system that could be the piece of equipment SOCOM wants to add to these aircraft.
The larger Dash-8s have both MX-15 and newer MX-25 sensor turrets. The latter type offers higher resolution imagery and has improved ability to see through hazy conditions.
Based on what we know of similar aircraft entering service with the Army, these planes likely carry their own robust signals intelligence suites with even more capability than those on the smaller Beechcraft. They likely have some form of radar or laser-imaging system and multi-camera wide-area aerial surveillance capabilities.
The STAMP fleet as a whole has satellite communications stems and other data links to send imagery and other data back to base or directly to personnel on the ground in near real time. But more interestingly, all of them are set to receive specialized equipment to prevent hostile forces from jamming their GPS navigation systems. It’s not clear what necessarily prompted this requirement, but we at The War Zone have noted on multiple occasions that this satellite-based network is increasingly vulnerable to physical and electronic attacks.
We don’t know what the anti-jam equipment consists of, but it seems likely that the upgrades add new antennas or other features that are more resistant to interference. Whatever the case, it is a simple reality that the U.S. military as a whole will increasingly be called upon to operate in areas where GPS functionality might be degraded, if not absent altogether.
We know that the issue, or the potential for it to become an issue, was serious enough that the U.S. Air Force included a section on it in at least one routine intelligence summary in 2016. These problems could be even more pronounced for American special operators operating largely detached from larger conventional forces discreetly, or even covertly, in remote areas.
Limited operations over austere locations are common for these aircraft. In addition to N6351V, both N80BZ and N166BA were conducting operations over Iraq in 2016 and they have previously appeared in Afghanistan. According to the new contracting documents they are still at an unspecified location outside the contiguous United States identified as Site 1, suggesting they are still in that region.
Those same documents state that N8200L is operating from a second Site 2 and, as the War Zone previously reported, it has been flying over Libya from Souda Bay on the Greek island of Crete in the Mediterranean since early 2018. When it arrives, N8200R will reportedly join that aircraft, which is almost certainly tracking ISIS and other terrorists in the North African country.
Over Iraq, and potentially Syria, the King Airs would be best suited to providing more immediate tactical intelligence. SOCOM’s planes were previously known as the Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System (MARSS), which was supposed to “accurately detect, identify, and report threat targets in near real-time,” according to one Army publication. The Dash-8s are undoubtedly better able to gather intelligence across a broader area and with an eye toward developing so-called “patterns of life.”
The STAMP fleet also offers an organic capability directly to special operators, who might otherwise have to rely on similar intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support from other services or private contractors using their own aircraft. But the exact future of the project isn’t entirely clear.
Despite its obvious value, the SOCOM spokesperson told us by Email that there are no plans to add any additional aircraft to this particular program in the next five years. And despite the latest contracting announcement and 2019 budget request mentioning the aircraft, the crash totaled N6351V and it won’t be returning to service.
Another Army-owned Beechcraft King Airs, with the civil registration N8007U, was co-located with N6351V at Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia in 2015, but was also not assigned to any of the Army units at that site. According to the FAA, that aircraft is still registered to the service, but it’s unclear who is operating it at present. SOCOM also hired private, and may still have them under contract, to fly a number of other King Airs as part of a project known as "Java Man" or "Javaman."
We also have very good evidence that there are more secret fleets of aerial surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft dedicated to supporting the Joint Special Operations Command. One of those aircraft, a modified CASA CN-235, appeared over Syria in January 2018.
It’s clear that SOCOM intends to continue flying the STAMP aircraft for the foreseeable future, though. Depending on the demand for these aircraft, the command may decide it needs to change course and add more of these discreet platforms.
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