Here’s How An Air Force Plan To Scrap A Key Spy Plane Could Hurt The US’ Effort To Stop Drugs Coming Across The Border

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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  • The Air Force National Guard is retiring a fleet of reconnaissance planes early, a move that could inhibit law enforcement efforts to stem illegal drug trafficking into the U.S., experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
  • It remains uncertain what alternative capabilities exist to replace the RC-26 surveillance aircraft.
  • “Do I think it’s going to stretch already stretched assets further? Yes,” Retired Air Force Col. Dan DeBree, a professor at Texas A&M University and former Department of Homeland Security officer, told the DCNF.

The U.S. Air Force’s move to fast-track scrapping a spy plane long used for counternarcotics operations could weaken law enforcement’s ability to stifle the flow of drugs coming into the U.S. across the southern border as replacement options remain vague, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

The Air Force has accelerated the anticipated timeline to decommission its fleet of twin-engine RC-26 surveillance aircraft used in counter-drug missions, CNN reported Tuesday, citing internal Air Force documents. Removing the asset would deprive U.S. drug enforcement operations of needed equipment, and it’s not clear what the Air Force would replace them with or whether the force would continue to assist with intelligence-gathering operations at all, experts told the DCNF.

“Do I think it’s going to stretch already stretched assets further? Yes,” Retired Air Force Col. Dan DeBree, a professor at Texas A&M University and former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officer, told the DCNF. (RELATED: ‘Monsters’: Hundreds Of Armored Drug Cartel Vehicles Seized Near US-Mexico Border)

The loss might not create a “hole” in Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other relevant agencies, but replacement options for the RC-26 are unclear, DeBree added. “There are capabilities that maybe can’t replace it but definitely are commensurate, not necessarily with Air Force assets, but with other assets from CBP.”

The RC-26 aircraft assist law enforcement agencies in spotting and targeting illegal fentanyl shipments, and quickly became one of the most effective assets law enforcement brings to the conflict against drug smuggling organizations, officials told CNN. Law enforcement has prevented tens of thousands of fentanyl pills — each of them deadly — from entering the U.S. and contributing to a worsening drug crisis.

President Joe Biden has fallen under escalating scrutiny for his inattention to the U.S. border with Mexico, with critics claiming his lax policies have failed to stem the torrent of migrants and illegal drugs coming into America. The DEA seized over 50.6 million fentanyl-laced pills and more than 10,000 pounds of fentanyl powder in 2022, more than enough to kill every U.S. citizen, in 2022, according to a statement.

The Air Force told pilots RC-26 flights would continue until April 2023, when the planes would be sold to a non-Department of Defense agency, CNN reported, citing internal memos obtained by the outlet. In November, however, new orders came in instructing operators to dump their aircraft into storage to be scrapped for parts.

Sources characterized the move as a “drastic change” that would squeeze the Air Force National Guard’s already limited resources, CNN reported.

“The impact this plane and these operators have had in reducing, disrupting and damaging operations of illegal narcotics has been amazing and I am proud to have served alongside you,” one RC-26 pilot wrote in an email obtained by CNN.

Air Force leaders have advocated for retiring the outmoded aircraft in favor of newer technologies that can perform the same surveillance missions, for years, but Congress repeatedly included language in defense legislation blocking the move, Air and Space Forces Magazine (ASFM) reported.

However, Congress indicated in March that the funding extension for the RC-26 plane would not feature in the final National Defense Authorization Act for 2023, according to CNN.

Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois flies an RC-26 and has co-sponsored the legislation to rescue the aircraft, which first came into operation in the early 1990’s, from the boneyard. The Air Force is likely trying to divest from the platform as soon as possible to escape last-minute changes to defense funding, he told CNN.

“We are the only capable border plane. We were pulled from the border under Biden, and they are now killing us,” Kinzinger told CNN.

The move could also reflect the Air Force’s hostility to conducting counter-drug operations, Kinzinger told CNN, referencing a conversation with Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall earlier in 2022.

“It has been used in domestic operations” but has no federal demand, Air National Guard director Lt. Gen. Michael A. Loh noted in 2021, according to ASFM.

“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,” Loh added.

Current RC-26 pilots say the alternative capabilities, including unmanned aerial vehicles, lack the same breadth of functions as the manned RC-26, CNN reported.

Another possibility, not unlikely, is that the Air Force does have alternative assets to the RC-26 prepared, but the programs are shrouded under steep classification rules, retired Lt. Col. Danny Davis, a homeland security professor at Texas A&M University, explained to the DCNF.

“Describing what losing a certain asset could mean to ops is not out of the question. But, providing a possible option or two that might be in the works is not unreasonable,” Davis said.

The Air Force, DHS, CBP and DEA did not respond to the DCNF’s requests for comment.

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