RC-26 ‘Has Run Its Useful Life,’ But Keeping It Around Costs Air National Guard $30 Million Per Year

Of the scores of legacy aircraft the Air Force has sought—year after year—to retire, many reside in the Air National Guard, making up a small but significant portion of the Guard’s 1,046-aircraft fleet.

But even though the proposed retirements would have an outsized impact on his component, Lt. Gen. Michael A. Loh, Air National Guard director, is in line with other Air Force leaders in saying the older aircraft need to go.

“We need to divest that legacy and invest in the future,” Loh said Sept. 21 in a panel discussion at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference. “Stronger tomorrow is where I’m focused.”

Congress, however, has consistently prevented the service from divesting certain legacy aircraft. In particular, there’s one aircraft that typifies how keeping old planes past their useful service life is holding the Air Force back, Loh told reporters at a Sept. 22 roundtable: the RC-26.

“It’s an old aircraft, and there’s current language right now that says I can’t retire that fleet, or even expend money to prepare to retire that fleet,” Loh said. “And so, each year, I’m spending millions of dollars to keep a fleet alive that quite frankly has run its useful life, and I need to actually get out of those to get into something new.”

Specifically, keeping the 11 RC-26s still in the fleet costs the Air National Guard $30 million per year, Loh said.

“That’s the one that I focus on primarily, because that’s the one that we exclusively operate in the National Guard. … The combatant commanders have not wanted that airplane for the last several years,” Loh said. “It has been used in domestic operations,” he said, but there’s no federal demand for the aircraft.

The tactical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance airframe, which first entered the Air Force in 1989, has been surpassed by other platforms, Loh added.

“We’ve actually had better technologies out there to take care of the mission, so even if I needed to do the mission today, I can [do] it with better technologies that are cheaper to operate,” he said.

In the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, though, the Air Force was banned from retiring the aircraft. The Air Force’s 2022 budget request didn’t mention the RC-26.

Beyond the RC-26, Loh said, there are other legacy aircraft hampering the Guard at the moment.

“I’m sitting on about 20 F-15C models that are grounded right now, because the backbone of the aircraft is so cracked, I wouldn’t get in them and fly them,” said Loh. “I definitely wouldn’t put my children in them to go fly. But right now, I still can’t retire them.”

The Air National Guard has 123 F-15Cs in its inventory, which would put one out of every six of the airframes out of commission at the moment.