National Guard surveillance plane helping take fentanyl pills off the streets now faces extinction

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

Kinzinger is among a small group of Air National Guard pilots who operate the twin-engine RC-26 aircraft and have helped law enforcement agencies target large shipments of fentanyl that are flowing into the US from across the border.

But despite being described as an essential asset for law enforcement officials on the ground as they carry out raids and serve search warrants, the aircraft currently finds itself on the chopping block as Air Force leaders are planning to scrap the program, he told CNN.

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

“We’ve been saving it every year piecemeal,” he said. “The guard has made it very clear. It’s gone in April.”

Law enforcement officials from around 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 capable replacement, according to multiple sources familiar with those discussions.

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

Supporters of the aircraft like Kinzinger say, in reality, the Air Force does not currently have a plan to replace the capabilities provided by the RC-26 if the program is shuttered.

The Air Force has determined that divestment of the RC-26 “leaves no capability gap” and the service possesses sufficient “Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance assets” to support the needs of law enforcement authorities, Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek told CNN in response to questions about the future of the aircraft.

A law enforcement official who spoke to CNN under the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about his opposition to the Air Force’s plans to get rid of the aircraft, said doing so would take away the biggest advantage officers have over drug trafficking organizations that are currently “flooding the market” with large quantities 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,” the law enforcement official, who has routinely requested assistance from Air National Guard pilots operating the RC-26, said.

“It would be a great loss for us in law enforcement,” he added, noting it allows police departments to work more cases and spend less money on things like overtime for officers.

While the RC-26 is used for a variety of missions, it has proven to be very effective in helping law enforcement agencies not only seize large amounts of fentanyl but also arresting and building cases against violent drug traffickers bringing the deadly substance into the US.

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

An agent 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 the decision-making of law enforcement officials on the ground in real time as they execute search warrants and conduct raids.

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

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

But despite proving itself to be a valuable asset for drug interdiction, particularly at a time when the Biden administration is facing increasing pressure to stop the flow of fentanyl coming into the US from across the border, funding for the RC-26 aircraft is again on the chopping block.

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

The cost of maintaining all 11 RC-26s is between $25 and $31 million per year, according to a source familiar with the program, who note that is a “less than a drop in the bucket” considering the annual defense spending bill ranges in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Kinzinger has sent a letter to the Armed Services Committees requesting they keep the current language related to funding for the RC-26 in its next defense spending bill, which would keep the aircraft around for at least one more year and require an independent assessment of how the National Guard could replace it, with a cost analysis.

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

Kinzinger is not alone in his support of the RC-26. CNN spoke with current and former law enforcement officials working in what are known as High Intensity Trafficking Areas who were adamant that the plane is a critical tool for stopping the flow of illicit drugs into the US.

“I think of the RC-26 as my state bird,” said Rand Allison, a recently retired narcotics officer who spent over a decade working with RC-26 pilots as part of federal task forces focused on intercepting shipments of illicit drugs.

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

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

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

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

The RC-26 aircraft was also used in three separate drug busts over the last three weeks where law enforcement agencies seized more than 60,000 fentanyl pills in total, according to federal drug task force data obtained by CNN.

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

Exactly one week later, agents with the Department of Homeland Security Investigations division carried out the bust in Tucson that yielded more than 25,000 pills. The next day, a HIS team in Phoenix, Arizona seized an additional 5,000 pills and are building a much larger case, according to a law enforcement official familiar with operation.

Still, one law enforcement official who regularly works with Air National Guard pilots to conduct counter-drug operations acknowledged feeling like they are “winning many battles but losing the war when it comes to fentanyl,” making the RC-26’s survival even more imperative.

Over the last eight years, Kinzinger has been at the forefront of efforts to save his plane from extinction and preserve its ability to fly the type of missions that have endeared it to law enforcement officials across various agencies.

Now, the RC-26 is again at risk of being phased out due to the shifting priorities of Air Force leaders that do not include flying border or counter-drug missions, according to the Republican lawmaker, who opted not to run for re-election but is using the final months of his time in Congress, in part, to advocate for the aircraft’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 the service is already suffering from a pilot shortage.