Kings add majesty to Royal Saudi Air Force

Jon Lake looks at the world's best selling turboprop and its new special mission role in the Middle East.

The Royal Saudi Air Force has augmented its two Boeing RE-3 Sigint aircraft (broadly equivalent to the RC-135 Rivet Joint) with a pair of ISR-configured Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350i aircraft.

The King Airs, which join No 19 Squadron at Al Kharj air base, were delivered from Wiley Post Airport in Oklahoma on August 5, routeing via Bangor, Goose Bay, Keflavik, Shannon, and Vienna, before arriving in the kingdom.

The new aircraft closely resemble the USAF’s ‘Project Liberty’ MC-12W, which entered operational service in January 2009, and which has already proved highly successful in operations over Iraq and Afghanistan.

The USAF’s MC-12Ws flew more than 2,000 missions in their first six months in Iraq.

The MC-12W gathers and disseminates real-time full-motion video and signals intelligence, using MX-15Di high-definition surveillance and targeting turrets and an undisclosed Sigint sensor suite. The aircraft is fitted with airborne communications-on-the-move (COTM) terminals using an ArcLight Ku-band mobile broadband system, configured for data rates up to one Mbps off the aircraft.

There is great interest in aircraft in the same class as the MC-12W among a range of potential export customers, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but there are some obstacles in the way of exporting the full USAF-standard aircraft. L-3, Raytheon, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have, therefore, been working on similar aircraft using other systems, or exploiting key technologies from non-American suppliers, in order to avoid ITAR issues and to minimise export clearance requirements.

L-3’s ‘Spiderworks’ mission integration division (MID) displayed its Spydr King Air 350 ISR aircraft at the recent Royal International Air Tattoo, equipped with a fuselage-mounted electro-optical/infrared turret, a fuselage pod with a 100-pound payload, a tactical data link, satellite communications, and a full signals intelligence system. It offered systems like SELEX Galileo’s PicoSAR radar, and optics from Zeiss.

Many expected this aircraft to win a number of export competitions that were believed to be running.

But though L-3 had the advantage of producing the MC-12W, the new Saudi aircraft appear to have been produced by Raytheon, wearing ferry registrations allocated to Raytheon Co Air and Space Systems.

Raytheon has a major facility at Oklahoma City’s Wiley Post airport and the two aircraft are believed to have been converted there. Raytheon previously produced the five similar King Air 350ER-ISR platforms delivered to the Iraqi air force’s No 87 Squadron in 2009, and the four King Air 350ER-based Shadow Sigint aircraft delivered to the RAF’s No 5 Squadron.

The Saudi aircraft are fitted with a comprehensive array of blade antennas, indicating a Sigint suite similar to that used on the RAF’s Shadow, and like other Sigint King Airs the Saudi aircraft mount a capacious belly pannier, though this differs markedly to those fitted to the MC-12W and Shadow, and also to that fitted to the Iraqi version.

The Saudi aircraft are fitted with a FLIR turret (though some sources suggest that this may be the MX-20D HD surveillance and targeting turret rather than the MX-15Di used by the MC-12W), and this is mounted at the forward end of the belly pannier. They do not seem to have radar, unlike the Iraqi aircraft, which have an as-yet unidentified synthetic aperture radar – possibly the AN/APS-134 Sea Vue or APS-143 Ocean Eye or the AN/APS144 or APY-12 Phoenix or the RDR-1700 or (like the US Army’s Project Odin C-12 Horned Owl aircraft) an AN/APY-8 Lynx II radar.

Unlike some aircraft in this class, which wear colour schemes designed to ‘ape’ commercial light twins, the two new Saudi King Airs wear full disruptive two-tone grey camouflage and Royal Saudi Air Force markings and titles, though on delivery they lacked any obvious signs of comprehensive defensive aids, chaff/flare dispensers and missile warning systems.

At their new base at Al Kharj, the King Airs will operate alongside No 19 Squadron’s RE-3A and RE-3B.