The U.S. State Department Has Its Own Sprawling Air Force, Here's What's In Its Inventory

The Department has more than 200 helicopters, aircraft, and small drones, including a particularly shadowy small transport plane.

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As the United States continues to slog through nearly two decades of fighting in Afghanistan, the fact that American diplomats and other civilian U.S. government personnel still have to take short, but expensive helicopter rides to get safely to and from Kabul’s airport and the U.S. Embassy there has made headlines. But this is just a small portion of the Department of State’s Air Wing’s operations, which span more than a half a dozen countries and involve hundreds of aircraft, some of them armed. Now, thanks to a new official audit, we have a good sense of just what’s in the inventory of America’s “other air force.”

In September 2018, the Department of State’s Office of the Inspector General released its latest audit of the Air Wing, which is formally called the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs’ Office of Aviation, or INL/A. As of January 2018, the organization had more than 200 aircraft, making it one of the largest non-military aviation arms in a U.S. federal government agency. Not all of those aircraft, many which have come second or third hand from various U.S. government and other sources, are on active duty. In 2016, the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog, determined State was also one of the top three federal owners of “non-operational” aircraft.

“The Department’s aircraft can be used for many types of missions, which vary by location, and may include support for manual drug eradication, interdiction, reconnaissance, surveillance, command and control, medical evacuation, transportation of personnel or cargo, or other functions,” the audit noted. “INL/A is responsible for overseeing procedures governing maintenance, logistics, safety, and operational standards for the Department’s entire fleet.”

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A chart from the Department of State Office of the Inspector General's 2018 audit of State's Air Wing, giving an overview of its complete inventory.

This is a far cry from the Air Wing’s beginnings in 1976 during the early days of the so-called “War on Drugs,” when its activities were entirely focused on counter-narcotics operations. At the beginning of 2018, INL/A had 60 government employees and another 13 contractors situated at its headquarters within the U.S. Air Force’s Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. At a cost of nearly $5 billion dollars in the 2018 fiscal year, State has hired private military company DynCorp to oversee more than 1,500 personnel worldwide.

In 2018, the organization had assets positioned in Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Panama, and Peru, and there were plans to re-open an operation in Guatemala before the end of the year. In 2017, INL/A had ceased flying from sites in Cyprus and Pakistan.

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A description of INL/A activities by country as of Fiscal Year 2017.

With the exception of its activities in Afghanistan and Iraq, INL/A flies missions in support of the host country and often wearing the national insignia of their military or security forces. These operations have an important training component, as well, and State's ultimate goal is often to sell or otherwise turn over aircraft directly to its partners after a certain point, often leading to significant turnover in aircraft within the Air Wing.

The vast majority of INL/A active and inactive aircraft are variants and derivatives of the Bell UH-1 Huey helicopters, which typically conduct light transport and utility roles, as well as being able to insert and extract personnel from remote areas and perform medical evacuations. The fleet of nearly 120 choppers includes ex-U.S. military UH-1H and UH-1V variants, upgraded Huey IIs, twin-engine Model 212 types, and Model 214ST helicopters. 

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An INL/A Bell Model 212.

Though auditors grouped the latter type in with the others, it is a substantially different aircraft. Unfortunately, we do not have a clear breakdown of how many of each sub-type the Air Wing has on hand.

What we do know is that many of these helicopters are kitted out exactly as they would be for military use, with missile approach warning systems to spot incoming surface-to-air missiles and dispensers able to launch decoy flares. In some situations, such as past operations in Iraq and ongoing missions in Afghanistan, the contractor-operated choppers also carry mounted machine guns, including M240s and fast-firing Miniguns, for self-defense and for protection of other helicopters or personnel on the ground when conducting escort missions.

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A camouflaged Air Wing Huey II fires flares during a mission over Afghanistan.

The Air Wing’s fleet of more than 20 ex-U.S. Marine Corps Boeing Vertol CH-46E Sea Knights, which it operate predominantly in Afghanistan, have similar features. These blue-and-white painted aircraft are the ones that provide the shuttle service, known as Embassy Air, to and from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul to the American embassy compound just two miles away. 

The Embassy Air Program also operates in Iraq, which is significantly larger in scope, including regular, scheduled flights to and from neighboring Jordan. You can read more about that mission in detail here and here.

Starting in 2010, State had planned to procure a fleet of 15 totally refurbished Sikorsky S-61T helicopters, armed with Miniguns and equipped with self-defense systems, to perform the Embassy Air mission. It had also acquired a number of older S-61Ns. For reasons that remain unclear, there were difficulties in acquiring these aircraft and when the CH-46Es became available as the Marines transitioned to the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor, the Air Wing acquired a number of them and quickly put them to work instead.

Sikorsky did deliver the S-61Ts to the State in 2015, at which point the bulk of them went straight into storage at Patrick Air Force Base. As of July 2017, only five were flying operationally, two in Cyprus and three in Iraq.

The recently released audit said State still had 13 S-61Ts in storage, but a response from INL to a draft version of the report said that they had sold all of the S-61s, including the Ns, to unspecified buyers as of December 2017 by way of the General Services Administration (GSA). We don’t know whether or not the Department still owns a number of non-flyable H-3 Sea Kings, another S-61 variant, which it had acquired from the U.S. military to serve as parts donors for the new S-61Ts. 

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State Department S-61Ts in storage.

The Air Wing has also secured more than 20 Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters of different variants from the U.S. Army, via that service’s Black Hawk Exchange and Sales Team, or BEST. At least some of those helicopters are supporting counter-narcotics operations in Colombia. This makes sense since that country has its own fleet of Black Hawk types and INL/A’s aircraft could make use of any existing operational facilities set up for those helicopters.

State still has four MD-530 Little Bird light helicopters, as well, though these appear to all be in storage. The Air Wing had employed these small choppers in the past to conduct visual reconnaissance and escort missions, as well as ferry small numbers of personnel between sites.

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Air Wing UH-60s in Colombia.

Beyond its helicopter fleets, INL/A also has more than 20 fixed-wing turboprop aircraft of various sizes, primarily for shuttling around senior officials either within a country or between sites in a broader region. These include twin-engine Dash-8s and Beechcraft 1900s and single-engine Cessna C208B Grand Caravans, all of which are popular and easy to maintain types. Pictures show that at least some of the Dash-8s have missile warning receivers and flare launchers installed. 

In the past, the Air Wing has acquired fixed-wing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, but there is no indication that any of the aircraft in its inventory at present are equipped with turreted electro-optical cameras or other sensors. A single Fairchild-Dornier 328 Jet configured for ISR and command and control missions that INL/A had in 2014 has since gone to the Mexican Federal Police.

State has also sold off its only twin-engine DC-3T turboprop transport, which had been flying operations from Cyprus, in May 2017. The year before, it had divested three ex-U.S. Army C-23B transport planes that had originally been bound for the Philippines Coast Guard, as well.

INL/A has largely turned over its remaining Air Tractor AT-802 crop dusters, used to spray herbicides on drug fields, to partner nations. It does reportedly still have two of them in storage though. There is no indication that these aircraft have extra armor or other protective features, were present on highly modified Ayres Turbo Thrushes, known as Narcotics Eradication Delivery Systems, that the Air Wing operated in the 1980s and 1990s. State also long ago dropped plans to acquire armed aircraft in this class, which have since become increasingly popular around the world for light attack missions in limited conflicts.

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Two of State's AT-802 crop dusters circa 2013.

The Air Wing’s fleet also includes five AeroVironment RQ-11B Raven hand-launched small drones, each of which can carry a color daytime full motion video camera or infrared type for night operations. These are short-range, tactical systems with a maximum range of just more than six miles, and are likely available to help INL train various local partner forces in their operation.

The very last plane that State’s auditors recorded in INL/A’s inventory is far more curious than any of the rest. The Air Wing bought its lone turboprop Pilatus PC-6/B2-H4 Porter, which presently carries the U.S. civil registration code N907AW, in 2009 from Starflite International, Corp.

The year before, Starflite had acquired it from a company called Ace Aircraft Corp., which had the plane registered to an address inside an office building in Northern Virginia. Shortly before Ace bought it in 1996, the previous owner, East Texas Aircraft Service Corp. had hired a Delaware-based firm called Summit Aviation to installed a military-style identification friend-or-foe transponder, additional communications equipment, and a night vision goggle compatible cockpit layout in the Porter, according to documents we at The War Zone obtained from the Federal Aviation Administration via the Freedom of Information Act.

Summit Aviation has long-standing links to the Central Intelligence Agency and the most secretive elements of the U.S. military’s aviation communities dating back to the 1980s. While officially registered to Ace, the Porter was reportedly actually flying covert missions for the U.S. Air Force’s top secret 427th Special Operations Squadron, which you can read about in more detail here.

FAA via FOIA 

A description of the work Summit Aviation did to the Pilatus Porter that the State Department's Air Wing now owns.

We don’t know how or why this aircraft has now made its way to State or whether it retains any of its specialized features. The audit does not offer any details about its activities since joining the Air Wing or what it might be up to now, but it did turn up in Peru in 2015.

It’s important to note that this report may not necessarily be a full or accurate accounting of the Air Wing’s inventory, as well. The auditors found there was a worrying lack of oversight over just what aircraft State owned and where INL/A was conducting operations.

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The Air Wing owned this DC-3T until May 2017.

“As a result of limited … oversight and the absence of evaluations to determine the appropriate usage and cost effectiveness of the Department’s aircraft operations worldwide, the Department is not optimally managing aviation resources and spent $72 million on unnecessary services from September 2013 to August 2017,” the auditors noted in their executive summary. “INL did not fully maintain sufficient accountability over aircraft equipment… In addition, Department aviation assets were not always disposed of in accordance with Department requirements, which resulted in more than $8 million in funds that could be put to better use.”

It also doesn’t include any of the contractor-owned aircraft performing tasks for INL/A. State remains one of the potential agencies behind a fleet of shadowy gray S-92 helicopters that have most recently appeared in Syria. However, the auditors did not mention any contract air services in that country, but they did note that the Air Wing was overseeing the operations of dedicated charter aircraft in Cartersville, Georgia and Nairobi, Kenya.

What the audit does show is that the Air Wing remains a major, if still largely obscure player in the State Department's overseas activities and that its varied stable of aircraft truly forms another "air force" within the U.S. government.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com