The U.S. Army’s fixed-wing aviation program is one of the great and storied traditions in modern military aerospace, with deep roots in powered flight. In fact, the Army owned military aviation for the first half of the 20th century; it wasn’t until the Air Force branched off to become its own entity in 1947 that the Army wasn’t the largest military air asset.
However, its fixed-wing fleet of over three hundred aircraft is still larger than many air forces in the world, and when you include the rotary-wing fleet, the Army still maintains a massive air force.
At Greenwood Aerospace, we provide top-notch government procurement for almost all forms of military and government agencies. Our 41 years of experience serving all branches of the U.S. military—along with some of the largest defense contractors in the country—have enabled us to provide excellent supply chain logistics and aircraft sustainment. Our expert services include:
- Military contracting
- Military aircraft parts support
- MIL-SPEC packaging
- Foreign military sales & support
- Ground support equipment
- And more!
Read on to discover everything you need to know about advancements in Army fixed-wing aircraft—specifically the RC-12X Guardrail, its impact on modern military ISR, and the next evolutions of military aerospace. We explore:
- The history of King Airs as ISR platforms
- RC-12X Guardrail series and advancements
- How military supply chains have changed over the years
- What Greenwood Aerospace offers for your military parts procurement needs
The latest iteration of the King Air-based ISR platform is the RC-12X and RC-12X+ Guardrail aircraft. Let’s look at the program's history, where it came from, and where it’s headed.
The History of King Airs as ISR Platforms
An important piece of Army fixed-wing aviation is their in-house Intelligence, Surveillance, & Reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft. You will recall from our article on the history of the C-12 that the first iteration of King Airs used by the Army was not given the C-12 moniker. Instead, they were considered utility category aircraft and were called the U-21 Ute.
Also, these were the early ‘low-tail’ King Airs, derived from the first generation of King Airs. The first aircraft of the order was delivered in 1967 as a clear attempt to phase out piston-engine powered utility aircraft. All in all, the Army received about 88 of the aircraft.
The Army spent little time with ISR variants of the Ute, with RU-21A being used in Vietnam as a radio jamming aircraft. The RU-21 Ute lineage would serve with several models in production over the years. These were all used for either electronic countermeasures (ECM), jamming equipment, or radio reconnaissance equipment.
The most popular turboprop of all time would be an appropriate platform for low- and medium-altitude ISR work. And that is exactly what the Army used the King Air for. A lot, in fact.
Advancements in the RC-12 Guardrail Program
As ECM and ISR technology advanced, so did airplanes. The U-21 is a fine airplane; there are still hundreds of A90 and A100 King Airs flying worldwide with an excellent track record. But the first-gen King Airs were limited, facing such issues as
- The Ute was unpressurized: This severely limited the altitudes the RU-21could operate at.
- It was equipped with PT6A engines rated at only 550 shp per side: While these are great and far better than comparable pistons, they are limited in fuel. Limited fuel=limited loiter.
ISR is all about loitering times, so the Army needed an ISR platform that could operate at higher altitudes and for longer durations. Beechcraft answered this question for them with the Super King Air program. The original King Airs were so popular that Beech made major upgrades to the aircraft, producing an up-engined Super King Air.
In fact, the first Super King Airs to hit the Army were all the way back in 1974, just a short time after the U-21 entered service. These were completely off-the-shelf aircraft, meaning they were bone stock with nothing different from civilian versions other than a paint job. The original C-12As remained in continuous service for years, later upgraded to Charlie standards, an engine upgrade from 750 shp to 850 shp.
These aircraft have substantially more power than the anemic U-21s. The additional horsepower did not come with substantially higher fuel burn rates in cruise, but it did allow for provisional wingtip tanks, which provided much longer loiter durations.
This brings us to the RC-12D Guardrail.
The first Guardrail aircraft went into inventory in the early 1980s. The Delta model was given to the RC-12 because these first ones were derived from C-12Ds that were already in operation.
Many of the subsequent RC-12 models were adaptations and modifications of existing C-12 models. Since the modifications were generally interior and external antennas, there was no need or advantage to buying new production aircraft instead of modifying aircraft from the existing fleet.
Besides, it makes a lot of sense from a practical point of view: the base-model Hurons are used for executive transport. You want the nicest aircraft in the fleet to be presented to the General Officer staff. Obviously, this fleet won’t always be brand new, but it makes sense to put brand-new models in the USTRANSCOM pool.
You then take the seasoned ones with plenty of airframe life left on them and modify their mission.
What Is the U.S. Army Guardrail Program?
The Guardrail program has been around for a long time—52 years to be exact. The program was originally a Cold War-era system designed to warn and discover indicators of enemy movements and actions across Europe. However, throughout the long and storied history of the program, the mission has undergone a long transformation, adapting to new threats and always adding capabilities to the platform.
In this section, we explore:
- Military iterations of the RC-12 Guardrail program
- Advancements in ISR functions
- How modern military supply chains impact the RC-12X Guardrail
MIlitary Iterations of the RC-12 Guardrail Program
Special military variants of the C-12, specifically the RC-12 Guardrail, improved military operations with a focus on SIGINT. The variants include:
Introduced in 1985, the RC-12K featured stronger engines to increase its MTOW. The aircraft served to intercept comms between enemy combatants. A total of 11 were produced, 9 of which flew for the U.S. Army.
The RC-12N was the first edition to be fitted with Guardrail Common Sensor (GRCS) System functionality. This military variation featured four-bladed propellers, 1,200 shp, and a MTOW over 16,000 pounds.C-12F models were converted to RC-12N.
With similar specs to the RC-12N, the RC-12P featured improved SIGINT capabilities through upgraded GRCS System 2. 9 RC-12Ps were requisitioned for military use.
RC-12Q Guardrail models featured many of the same specs as the RC-12N and RC-12P—including the GRCS System 2—but it improved on SIGINT through its satellite comms antenna in the dorsal radome.
The newest model of the RC-12 Guardrail, RC-12X/X+ models are fitted with the most advanced GRCS System in use today. Introduced into the U.S. Army in early 2011, 14 RC-12X/X+s are deployed by our military to perform advanced SIGINT and ISR work. The GRCS economic useful life for RC-12X/X+ model was recently extended to 2034.
Advancements in RC-12 Guardrail ISR Functions
According to the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center (USAASC), the Guardrail Common Sensor (GRCS) is the current Signals Intel (SIGINT) platform. As of 2017, there are 14 aircraft in the fleet, and their job is to provide nearly real-time communications intel (COMINT) and electronics intel (ELINT).
The RC-12 Guardrail program is also undergoing improvements to increase reliability and improve functionality, including:
- Multiple Intelligence Signal Processing (Multi-INT) capability
- Situational awareness and communications upgrades through Distributed Common Ground System-Army (DCGS-A) access
- Glass cockpit
- Structural upgrades
Although, reasonably, much of the key specifications of the RC-12 Guardrail program are kept close to the vest, its superior ISR work is known across the globe.
So, Who Uses the RC-12X Guardrail Aircraft?
The obvious answer is the Army. But more specifically, all of the reconnaissance fleets, whether Army, Air Force, or Navy, are considered high-demand, low-inventory assets. There are only 14 RC-12X Guardrail aircraft in the inventory, which is a paltry number compared to all of the theatres of warfare we’ve been in over the past few decades.
More specifically, it is a military intelligence asset and is operated by the 116th Military Intelligence Brigade at Fort Gordon, Georgia.
How Modern Military Supply Chains Impact the RC-12X Guardrail Program
The military supply chain provides the necessary goods and services to all branches of the military. This includes everything from military aircraft parts to packaging, assisting in vital missions and tactical advantages. The military supply chain is complex, and often involves multiple contractors and suppliers to meet the demands of intelligence work, reconnaissance, ground support, and more.
Military supply chains differ from other supply chains in their specific assistance of military duties, ensuring supplies and materiel not only reach their destinations, but meet military specifications and standards in the process.
Today, the U.S. Department of Defense promotes efficiency in military supply chains through streamlined functionality, focusing on two types of logistics to improve supply chain management. They are:
- Lean logistics
- Focused logistics
The main focus of lean logistics is “the physical flows and storage of materials,” meaning it applies the basic principles of logistics while cutting out the “fat” of potential delays or unnecessary restocking.
Lean logistics abides by 5 key tenets:
By following these principles, military supply chains can more effectively handle, ship, and procure materiel without the unexpected delays or lost inventory of modern supply chain challenges.
With the demand for any and all tactical advantage—especially in increasingly technological warfare—the U.S. military implemented focused logistics. The exact definition of focused logistics per military standards is “the fusion of information, logistics and transportation technologies to:
- provide rapid crisis response
- track and shift assets even while en route
- deliver tailored logistics packages and sustainment at the strategic, operational and tactical level of operations”
Many consider focused logistics the militarization of lean logistics, revolutionizing longstanding logistics practices to enhance procurement, shipping, and outfitting for military operations.
Greenwood Aerospace assists with your supply chain needs through precise supply chain management technology, implementing our Greenwood Procurement Intelligence (GPIQ) software to focus on market intelligence and value enhancement. GPIQ acts as a strategic partner to ensure that your procurement expenses are long-term managed and always cost-effective. Contact Greenwood Aerospace today for all your supply chain management needs.
The Future of Military Supply Chains and RC-12X Guardrail Program
Delays and shortages in commercial supply chains can have serious consequences—especially for ISR platforms. Any delay of necessary fiber optic cables or surveillance equipment can drastically reduce our military’s tactical advantages during conflicts. It is imperative to national security and to the lives of our servicemen and women that all military supply chains are operating at peak efficiency.
To ensure military supply chains are assisting our servicemen and women at home and abroad, more and more technological advancements are being made and applied to military operations.
RC-12X Guardrail: What Makes it Better than the Previous Versions?
Well, that’s tough to say. It is mostly just a continued evolution of airframes that have been proving themselves for more than fifty years.
For the most part, it is incremental advances in engine technology and improvements in electronics or kits to change the overall mission of the aircraft based on perceived, experienced, or anticipated threats.
With the U.S.’s prowess in ISR, upgrades from, for instance, GRCS System 1 to System 2 may seem inconsequential from the outside, but even the smallest tactical advantage in combat can be the difference between success or loss of life. As the military proceeds to implement more technological advances, such as AI and unmanned fleets, the future of ISR is already in flight with the Guardrail program.
Government Procurement Operated By Greenwood Aerospace
One thing has stayed the same over the years: aircraft are sensitive machines that need quality care, parts, and components to stay at peak health. The care of your fleet is our primary concern at Government Procurement, operated by Greenwood Aerospace. Whether you are looking for parts procurement, kitting services to simplify your maintenance demands and general supply chain management, Greenwood Aerospace is here to help you.