Deployed Lawmaker Fights Air National Guard's Effort to Shrink Spy Plane Fleet

The 141st Operations Group RC-26 sits at Medford Airport before taking off to map the Chetco Bar fire in southwest Oregon Sept. 2, 2017, Medford, Oregon. (U.S. Air Force photo/Sean Campbell)
The 141st Operations Group RC-26 sits at Medford Airport before taking off to map the Chetco Bar fire in southwest Oregon Sept. 2, 2017, Medford, Oregon. (U.S. Air Force photo/Sean Campbell)

The Air National Guard may be looking to get rid of at least half its RC-26 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance fleet in coming years, and one guardsman -- who also happens to be a U.S. congressman -- isn't happy about it.

While the move is predecisional and hinges on the upcoming fiscal budget request, the Guard could potentially shed part of its inventory of older RC-26 models, Military.com has learned.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger has spoken out against the plan, entering the discourse as both a policymaker and a guardsman.

In a recent Op-Ed in Air Force Times, Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, said divesting the aircraft at a time when border security needs to be a top priority for the nation would be a mistake.

During the recent 35-day government shutdown, Kinzinger, who serves as an RC-26 pilot with the Wisconsin Air National Guard's 115th Fighter Wing, wrote that the ISR plane could be the boost that border security needs when other resources are scarce or troops are limited by other means.

"As a Guard pilot, I fly the RC-26 -- the only aircraft in the Air Force inventory that can do Pillar I of the president's National Security Strategy, which includes counter-drug and border security for both state and federal missions," he said.

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"Despite the important abilities of this reconnaissance plane, Air Guard officials announced they'll be removing it from use, and will do so quickly. Their announcement was made quietly, as the country's attention was drawn to the government shutdown focused on the issues on our southern border," he said in the Jan. 27 op-ed. Pillar I of the National Security Strategy is defined as protecting "the American people, the homeland, and the American way of life," according to the strategy document.

Kinzinger, a lieutenant colonel, deployed to the border earlier this week as part of his Guard duty, according to a statement from his office.

While the Pentagon last month called for 3,750 additional troops to support the Department of Homeland Security mission, Kinzinger had already been given his deployment orders by then.

Maura Gillespie, a spokeswoman for Kinzinger, said the lawmaker stands by his overall arguments for additional resources for border security.

"As the congressman has said before, he believes we need stronger border security, and that includes having additional military personnel on the ground to handle the illegal activity on the border, but also to help facilitate activity through the points of entry and people coming into the country," Gillespie told Military.com last week before his deployment.

Kinzinger was commissioned in the Air Force in 2003, according to Air Force Magazine. He first flew KC-135 Stratotankers before switching to the RC-26, and deployed several times for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Like Martha McSally, the Air Force's first female combat pilot and now a Republican senator from Arizona, Kinzinger is backing his plane, said retired Gen. David Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

"Because he does fly the plane, it actually adds to his credibility to comment on its status with respect to its potential future," Deptula, who was also the Air Force's first deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, told Military.com on Tuesday.

McSally, who was recently appointed to the late Sen. John McCain's seat, has been a significant voice for backing the A-10 Warthog's preservation amid the Air Force's attempt to retire the close-air support mission aircraft.

A former A-10 pilot whose home state includes Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, McSally even orchestrated an amendment to make the Air Force perform simulated drills to determine whether the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or the A-10 could conduct the close-air support mission better.

But unlike McSally, who retired from active duty in 2010, Kinzinger remains a service member. Even so, his lawmaker status gives him the ability to focus on projects he's passionate about, Deptula said.

There's "nothing unusual about a congressman speaking to their bias," Deptula said in an email.

"However, [his] perspectives need to be put into context as he is viewing the value of the RC-26 at a tactical level, and the Air Force is making its programmatic assessment and decisions at the operational/strategic level and need to balance mission, capability and available resources."

Retiring a portion of the RC-26 fleet could allow the Guard to focus its resources elsewhere, sources familiar with the discussions said. It's a move the service has slowly tried a few times before.

There are currently 11 RC-26 aircraft in the fleet, according to the service. They vary in upgrades: five are Block 20s and six are Block 25s, which have different avionics packages. Since at least 2009, the Guard has overseen all 11 of the medium-altitude ISR aircraft, which are used for domestic response, counter-drug operations and disaster relief, as well as in response to requests for assistance from local governments.

The planes, which date back to the early 1990s, have deployed to assess and monitor damage sustained during Hurricane Katrina, multiple wildfires out West and, more recently, to scour areas in Texas affected by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. They’ve also deployed overseas in support of missions such as Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation New Dawn.

Funding for the RC-26 -- a twin turboprop known as the "Condor" -- comes out of the operation and maintenance budget.

It costs $6,500 per hour to fly it, according to the Air Force's fiscal 2017 cost data. That year, the aircraft logged 4,241 flight hours globally, the service said. Statistics were not available for similar, manned intelligence-gathering platforms such as the MC-12 Liberty or U-28A for operational security reasons.

By comparison, the unmanned MQ-9 Reaper -- which has also flown domestic missions for the border as well as for fire and hurricane relief -- costs about $4,800 to fly, according to the 2017 data.

The Reaper logged more than 290,789 hours worldwide in fiscal 2017.

Deptula argued the RC-26, though aging, is still a good fit for the Guard's home missions.

"While the RC-26 is a small fleet, it's relatively inexpensive to maintain for the spectrum of missions it is capable of conducting -- humanitarian assistance/disaster response; counter-drug operations; and other ISR missions depending on sensors on-board," he said. "As a result, it is a perfect fit for the Air National Guard."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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