The Air Force as soon as Christmas Day will deliver to Afghanistan the first of 24 new Hawker Beechcraft Corp. planes modified by L-3 Communications Holdings Inc. to support ground troops with video, still images and eavesdropping. The L-3 would be the first real spy plane.
The four-man, twin-propeller plane “should arrive on or shortly after Dec. 25th,” about one month ahead of schedule, Lieutenant General David Deptula, who oversees Air Force intelligence and reconnaissance, said in an e-mail today.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered the service in April 2008 to dramatically increase the number of manned and unmanned aircraft providing intelligence to ground troops. The planes will help support the 30,000 additional troops President Barack Obama ordered to Afghanistan. Six of the new spy planes already are flying missions in Iraq.
The Air Force is setting up stations at its air bases at Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, and Bagram, near Kabul, the capital, to receive and process data and then send it along to ground troops.
The planes also can beam images and video directly to ground troops, who will be equipped with L-3 Communications ‘‘Rovers” -- laptop devices that allow soldiers to see the same images as airborne operators. Almost 5,000 Rovers have been delivered to the U.S. military by L-3 Communications.
The Air Force also will give the Army about 50 of the latest-generation Rovers -- hand-held versions that allow soldiers via satellite link both to receive images and to tell pilots where to direct the plane’s cameras, Deptula said.
The new planes provide “full-motion video and specialized signals intelligence” and all 24 should be in Afghanistan by September, Deptula said.
The aircraft will augment round-the-clock surveillance now provided by unmanned Predator drones.
The modified planes are equipped with both high-resolution and heat-sensing cameras produced by New York City-based L-3 Communications Holdings, Inc. and with radios from Waltham, Massachusetts-based Raytheon Co. and Melbourne, Florida-based Harris Corp.
The planes also are equipped with sensors that can monitor insurgents’ conversations and help pinpoint their location, said Jeffrey Richelson, author of the “U.S. Intelligence Community,” a detailed compendium now in its fifth edition.
The sensors are provided by the National Security Agency, which manages U.S. eavesdropping satellites.
“It’s a lot of intelligence and dissemination capability in a small package,” Richelson said. The planes, with self- protective equipment, are “also clearly designed for a combat environment,” he said.
Congress this year approved $950 million to buy as many as 37 aircraft from Wichita, Kansas-based Hawker Beechcraft Corp. The planes can fly as high as 35,000 feet and orbit for as long as five hours. They are modified at L-3 Communication’s Greenville, Texas, facility.
* Hawker Beechcraft Corp.
* L-3 Communications Holdings Inc.