A National Guard surveillance plane helping to remove fentanyl pills from the streets now faces extinction


GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who also serves as a pilot in the Air National Guard, is sounding the alarm over plans to cut funding for a little-known military surveillance plane that law enforcement officials say to CNN is a vital tool in dismantling drug trafficking organizations and has helped them take tens of thousands of illegal fentanyl pills off the streets in the last month alone.

Kinzinger is one of a small group of Air National Guard pilots who operate the RC-26 twin-engine aircraft and have helped law enforcement agencies target large shipments of fentanyl arriving in the United States across the border.

But despite being described as a vital asset to law enforcement officials in the field as they carry out raids and serve search warrants, the plane currently finds itself on the chopping block as leaders of the Air Force plan to drop the program, he told CNN.

“Law enforcement lives have been saved by having this asset available,” according to Kinzinger. “We can see anything strange that’s going to happen,” he said, adding that pilots can also track suspects with their aerial camera without them knowing, allowing officers to maintain the item. of surprise.

“We saved it every year on a piecemeal basis,” he said. “The goalkeeper said it very clearly. It left in April.

Law enforcement officials across the country and National Guard pilots who fly the RC-26 have appealed directly to Air Force leaders in Washington to keep the plane or provide a replacement. capable, according to multiple sources close to those discussions.

But despite self-imposed limits on the types of operations that National Guard RC-26 pilots can perform, Air Force leaders have now decided they no longer want to fund reconnaissance assets. drones for border and anti-drug missions, saying unmanned drones can be offered to fill that need, Kinzinger said.

Proponents of the aircraft like Kinzinger say that in reality, the Air Force currently has no plan to replace the capabilities provided by the RC-26 if the program is shut down.

The Air Force has determined that the RC-26 divestiture “leaves no capability gaps” and that the service has sufficient “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets” to meet the needs of law enforcement authorities. law enforcement, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek told CNN in response to questions about the plane’s future.

“flooding the market” with large amounts of fentanyl and killing swaths of Americans in the process.

“I know the Air Force is trying to say there are other options…but they don’t have the same capabilities,” said the law enforcement official, who has regularly asked for help from the Air National Guard pilots operating the RC-26.

“It would be a big loss for us in law enforcement,” he added, noting that it allows police departments to process more cases and spend less money on things like hours. extra for agents.

While the RC-26 is used for a variety of missions, it has proven highly effective in helping law enforcement not only seize large amounts of fentanyl, but also arrest and build cases against them. violent drug dealers bringing the deadly substance into the United States.

Equipped with a range of surveillance equipment, including infrared imaging systems and secure radio communications, the Air Force’s small fleet of RC-26 aircraft played a leading role in several recent operations targeting illicit fentanyl shipments by serving as a pre-verbal eye in the sky for agents and officers on the ground, according to current and former officials.

An officer or police officer is often on board the aircraft to direct the pilot where to go and, working in tandem, they are able to collect information to help inform ground law enforcement decision making in time. real as they execute search warrants and conduct raids.

In the past two weeks in Arizona, the relatively obscure turboprop plane has been involved in three separate fentanyl seizures of 22,500 pills each, according to law enforcement data obtained by CNN.

Each seizure averted 10,000 potential deaths, according to a US official familiar with the operations, who noted that the DEA says four out of 10 pills contain a lethal amount of fentanyl.

But while it has proven to be a valuable asset to drug prohibition, especially at a time when the Biden administration faces growing pressure to stop the flow of fentanyl entering the United States from the Across the border, funding for the RC-26 aircraft is again on the chopping block.

Air Force officials believe the relatively small amount of money used to keep the current fleet of 11 RC-26 aircraft in the air would be better spent elsewhere. If a House amendment to provide more funding for the plane fails to pass the conference and is not included in Congress’ next defense spending bill, the plane will be “disappeared in April. “, according to Kinzinger.

The cost of maintaining the 11 RC-26s is between $25 million and $31 million a year, according to a source close to the program, who notes that it’s “less than a drop in the ocean” matters. given the annual defense expenditure bill. hundreds of billions of dollars.

Kinzinger sent a letter to armed services committees asking them to retain the current RC-26 funding language in his next defense spending bill, which would keep the plane for at least another year and would require an independent assessment of how the National Guard could replace it, subject to a cost analysis.

But even if that happens, the long-term survival of the aircraft remains in question, as does the future success of the specialist missions it currently performs.

Kinzinger is not alone in supporting the RC-26. CNN spoke to current and former law enforcement officials working in so-called high-intensity traffic zones, who insisted the plane is a critical tool in stopping the flow of illicit drugs into the United States.

“I consider the RC-26 my state bird,” said Rand Allison, a recently retired narcotics officer who has spent more than a decade working with RC-26 pilots on task forces. federal government focused on the interception of illicit drug shipments.

Heightened public awareness of the dangers of fentanyl, bipartisan concerns, and law enforcement statistics obtained by CNN also underscore how RC-26 remains relevant despite claims by some Air Force officials. that he is too old.

For example, data provided to CNN by the Southern Nevada High Impact Narcotics Task Force shows that law enforcement used RC-26 to seize 134,009 fentanyl pills and 15.7 pounds of pure fentanyl powder this year alone – a dramatic increase from the approximately 67,000 tablets and 2.7 pounds of powder seized in 2021.

In 2020, the task force documented its first seizures of fentanyl pills and powder, highlighting how the dramatic increase in law enforcement operations has focused on these particular trafficking operations.

If the RC-26 program is ultimately scrapped, law enforcement officers would lose their best asset in dismantling trafficking operations bringing fentanyl into the United States from across the border, Allison told CNN.

The RC-26 plane was also used in three separate drug busts in the past three weeks, where law enforcement seized more than 60,000 fentanyl tablets in total, according to federal task force data. on drugs obtained by CNN.

The first operation took place on October 18 in Las Vegas, Nevada, where the DEA seized 21,500 fentanyl tablets.

Exactly one week later, agents from the Department of Homeland Security’s Investigations Division performed the bust in Tucson which yielded more than 25,000 pills. The next day, an HIS team in Phoenix, Arizona, seized an additional 5,000 pills and built a much larger case, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the operation.

Yet a law enforcement official who regularly works with Air National Guard pilots to conduct counter-drug operations admitted to feeling like he was “winning many battles but losing the war in this regarding fentanyl”, which makes the survival of RC-26 even more imperative.

For the past eight years, Kinzinger has been at the forefront of efforts to save his aircraft from extinction and preserve its ability to perform the type of missions that have endeared him to law enforcement officials. in various organizations.

Now the RC-26 is once again at risk of being phased out due to Air Force leadership’s shifting priorities that don’t include border flying or counter-narcotics missions, Republican lawmaker says , who chose not to stand for re-election. but uses the final months of his time in Congress, in part, to advocate for the plane’s survival.

If that happens, the Air Force will also lose more than 60 Air National Guard pilots who are trained to fly the RC-26, Kinzinger added, noting that the service already suffers from a pilot shortage.