The U.S. State Department Has Its Own (Surprisingly Big) Air Force

Diplomatic air wing deploys 130 planes and copters to train allies, battle drug traffickers


The U.S. State Department possesses just under 100 helicopters and more than 30 fixed-wing aircraft and deploys them all over the world, mostly as part of the America’s international drug war.

The Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs’ Office of Aviation—a.k.a., the INL Air Wing—employs contractors and foreign government aviators to fly these aircraft in seven countries: Afghanistan, Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala, Iraq, Pakistan and Peru.

The main mission of the Air Wing is to assist friendly states in their own fights against illegal drugs and narco-terrorism. However, with its large fleet—larger than the air forces of some NATO members—the Air Wing also trains allied governments and provides general aviation support, including transportation for diplomatic missions.

For instance, an Air Wing DC-3T was spotted in Libya around the time of the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in September 2012.

Compared to the military’s air arms with their thousands of high-tech aircraft, the Air Wing operates on the cheap with an annual budget of barely $1 billion.

State is currently in the pre-solicitation phase for separate contracts for the Air Wing’s operations, logistics, maintenance and IT. These contractors will support the Air Wing at its headquarters at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida and in the seven countries where it operates full-time.

Department of State INL Air Wing CH-46. Air Wing photo

Helping hands

In five of the seven countries where the Air Wing operates, contractors work with local military and law enforcement personnel and even fly aircraft wearing the national insignia of those nations. Through bilateral agreement, Air Wing contractors work directly with the Bolivian Air Force, the Colombian National Police, the Guatemalan Air Force, the Pakistani Frontier Corps and the Peruvian National Police.

Only in Iraq and Afghanistan are Air Wing personnel not directly embedded with another force. In many cases, the Air Wing trains foreign troops and cops to maintain and operate the aircraft and then actually transfers the aircraft to them.

This cooperative model means that the Air Wing operates a significant number of refurbished, second-hand aircraft—as well as new but economical types that might be passed on to foreign partners.

These include helicopters like the Huey II, which Bell offers as a rebuild option using donated airframes, plus ex-Marine Corps CH-46 Sea Knights, which the Air Wing has been acquiring as the Marines replace the CH-46s with V-22 tiltrotors.

Fixed-wing assets include the popular Cessna 208 Caravan and the Air Tractor AT-802 crop duster, the latter used to spray herbicides over drug fields. In the last decade, Air Wing Huey IIs and C-27A transports have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan to help develop the air forces of those countries.

Department of State INL Air Wing facility in Iraq. Air Wing photo

Aerial drug war

State has been flying aircraft in support of counter-narcotics efforts since the 1970s, when it acquired a number of ex-military OV-10 Bronco light-attack aircraft. The Air Wing used these aircraft, with their armament removed, to spray herbicides on drug fields in Colombia, Mexico and Burma.

Efforts in Latin America greatly expanded in the 1980s. By the end of the decade, State was operating specially-built Narcotics Eradication Delivery System aircraft—a variant of the Ayres Turbo Thrush crop duster—from airfields in Belize, Bolivia, Guatemala and Peru.

These flights were referred to as “Operation Roundup,” after the weedkiller. In the 1990s, the program shifted to Colombia, where it remains.

The Air Wing and the State Department in general have become deeply invested in the development of foreign military and police air arms. The mission has become more urgent as the Air Force has tried and failed to acquire its own light planes specifically for training foreign air forces.

Many of the countries that State supports, especially in Africa and Latin America, simply could not afford to operate and maintain advanced jet aircraft or even multi-engine turboprop transports like the ubiquitous C-130.

With its relatively low operating cost, low profile and easy-to-use equipment, the Air Wing will likely remain a good choice for helping friendly countries fight drugs or build their own air arms.

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