Air Force Probing Use of RC-26 Spy Plane in US Cities

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An RC-26 aircraft from the 130th Airlift Wing out of Charleston, W.V. provided live footage about washed out roads and flood damage to infrastructure on June 11, 2008 for the Indiana National Guard. (US Army/Staff Sgt. Marvin Cornell)
An RC-26 aircraft from the 130th Airlift Wing out of Charleston, W.V. provided live footage about washed out roads and flood damage to infrastructure on June 11, 2008 for the Indiana National Guard. (US Army/Staff Sgt. Marvin Cornell)

The Air Force Inspector General has launched an investigation into whether the Air National Guard improperly used a spy plane to surveil citizens protesting in two U.S. cities earlier this month.

The IG's office, headed by Lt. Gen. Sami Said, will examine whether RC-26 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance planes conducting multiple flights over Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis, and relayed information to local law enforcement units.

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"Following discussions with the Secretary of Defense about shared concerns, the Secretary of the Air Force is conducting an investigation into the use of Air National Guard RC-26 aircraft to support civil authorities during recent protest activity in U.S. cities," Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, spokesman for the Air Force, told Military.com on Friday.

The New York Times was first to report the investigation. Ryder said due to the ongoing nature of the inquiry, the service will not release any further details.

The Times reported the investigation was prompted by lawmakers' concern over use of military equipment during protests happening across the country following the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of the Minneapolis police.

The West Virginia Air National Guard had sent an RC-26 -- a C-26 Metroliner modified with electronic surveillance equipment -- to watch over protesters on June 2, the Times reported. Aircraft spotters had seen an RC-26 circling for hours over the D.C. area. The aircraft was also supported by Pennsylvania's 148th Air Support Operations Squadron.

Officials told the Times the RC-26 was using FMV -- or full-motion video -- to record footage from the aircraft and beam it back to National Guard officials watching in real time.

An RC-26  from the Wisconsin Guard was also seen circling over Minneapolis earlier this month.

According to the Times, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois and a member of the Wisconsin Air National Guard's 115th Fighter Wing, flew two missions over Minneapolis as part of his Guard duty.

Kinzinger, part of a three-member crew, told the newspaper that the plane's cameras were gathering general images of people below; the sensors, however, cannot conduct "facial recognition or read license plates on vehicles," because of their inadequate resolution.

"We don't gather human intelligence on what the protesters are doing," Kinzinger added. "We don't collect cell phone data. We don't harvest or analyze any data. We don't do any of that."

There are currently 11 RC-26 aircraft in the fleet, according to the service, and vary in capability: 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 to respond to assistance requests from local governments.

Kinzinger, a lieutenant colonel, previously deployed with his unit to conduct a surveillance security mission on the southern border of the U.S. in February 2019.

The lawmaker last year also spoke out against the Air Force's potential cut to the ISR fleet, which the Guard has been attempting to make for years to reallocate resources.

But the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act halted that planned retirement. The Air Force cannot spend money to retire or realign funds meant for the RC-26 until the Air Force secretary "certifies to the congressional defense committees that other platforms or technologies provide equivalent capabilities," according to the legislation.

The RC-26 has been used domestically mostly for hurricane and wildfire response.

In 2017, RC-26s scoured areas in Texas affected by Hurricane Harvey. Air National Guard director Gen. L. Scott Rice previously told Military.com in those instances, the Guard doesn't conduct ISR, but rather "IAA" -- Incident Awareness Assessment.

"It's a way to say, we're using the same piece of equipment but we're using it on a totally different focus ... to find and save lives as opposed to find and protect ourselves from the enemy," Rice said.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to show that an RC-26 from the Wisconsin Air Guard flew over Minneapolis earlier this month.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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

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