The U.S. Air Force is accelerating the timeline for retiring its fleet of 11 RC-26 surveillance aircraft used to stop drugs from crossing the border into America.
The twin-engine RC-26 aircraft have a range of surveillance gear, including infrared imaging systems and secure radio communications, and have been relied on heavily for domestic border patrol and monitoring fentanyl smuggling across the U.S. with Mexico border.
The planes were initially slated to be retired in April 2023 but pilots received new orders last month to have the aircraft scrapped for parts before the end of the year.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) has been sounding the alarm about the dangers of cutting funding for this little-known military surveillance aircraft, which has been very instrumental in tracking fentanyl shipments coming into the U.S. from across the border.
Kinzinger is a pilot in the Air National Guard and one of a small group of pilots who operate the twin-engine RC-26 aircraft.
According to Kinzinger, law enforcement’s lives have been saved by these aircraft. Kinzinger said that pilots can also follow suspects with their aerial cameras without them knowing, which allows agents to maintain the element of surprise. “We can see anything weird that’s going to happen,” he said.
CNN reported that law enforcement officials from around the country and National Guard pilots had appealed directly to Air Force leaders in Washington to keep the plane or provide a capable replacement but, according to Kinzinger, Air Force leaders decided they no longer wanted to fund piloted reconnaissance assets for border and counter-drug missions. They claim unmanned drones are capable of filling that need.
In November 2022, the planes were used in three separate fentanyl busts, totaling approximately 22,500 pills each.
“We are the only capable border plane. We were pulled from the border under Biden, and they are now killing us,” Kinzinger told CNN.
In a tweet, Kinzinger called the retirement of the RC-26 a “short-sighted decision” that will only harm our citizens.
— Adam Kinzinger (@RepKinzinger) November 5, 2022
Kinzinger and other supporters of the aircraft say that the Air Force does not currently have a plan to replace the capabilities provided by the RC-26.
In 2019, Kinzinger wrote in the Airforce Times that the decision to retire the aircraft “undermines Trump’s border security priorities.”