The U.S. Air Force is pushing back its schedule for scrapping a small fleet of surveillance planes used to clean fentanyl pills off the streets, telling National Guard pilots they must fly their planes to the cemetery by the end of the month to do so they can be undressed for parties, according to documents obtained by CNN.
The new plan to eliminate the twin-engine RC-26 aircraft months earlier than expected marks an escalation in the service’s effort to phase out the small but heavily used fleet of aircraft, despite their contributions to counternarcotics and border missions.
It also comes at a time when the Biden administration is facing increasing scrutiny of its border policies and grappling with a dramatic spike in fentanyl-related deaths across the country.
In March, when it became clear that Congress was unlikely to pass a provision that would have extended funding for the plane, the Air Force notified the pilots operating the RC-26 that internal memos said they would continue flying missions through April 2023 might from CNN.
But in November, pilots received new orders, instructing them to take their planes to the graveyard before the end of the year so they could be scrapped for parts, rather than being sold to another unit outside the MoD as originally planned, the show memo
Multiple sources described the move as a “drastic change” in the Air Force, which came without warning. As a result, the force will lose about 80 pilots at a time when it is already facing a service-wide shortage, sources say.
“The impact this aircraft and these operators have had in reducing, disrupting and damaging illicit narcotics operations has been amazing and I am proud to have served alongside you,” one RC-26 pilot wrote to several others in an email obtained by CNN.
GOP rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who flies the RC-26 as an Air National Guard pilot and has campaigned to save the plane from extinction, told CNN that the postponement appears to be a move by the Air Force to get the plane so fast to demilitarize as possible to prevent a last-ditch rescue attempt.
“That’s the only reason I see that they decided to expedite it as soon as possible,” Kinzinger, who is leaving Congress next month, said in a recent interview with CNN. He said he believes the Air Force has little interest in flying counternarcotics missions, despite the RC-26’s outsized role in assisting law enforcement in combating the flow of fentanyl into the United States.
Kinzinger also said that he met with Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall earlier this year to make the case for keeping the RC-26, but was told very clearly that this was not possible.
“He basically made it clear that even though DoD is a major contributor, DoD deals are essentially not domestic drug problems,” Kinzinger said of the meeting.
“We are the only capable frontier aircraft. We were pulled off the border under Biden and they’re killing us now,” he added.
Law enforcement officials from across the country and other National Guard pilots flying the RC-26 have also made direct appeals to Air Force leaders in Washington to keep the plane or provide a capable replacement, according to multiple sources familiar with these discussions.
But despite self-imposed limitations on the types of operations RC-26 National Guard pilots can fly, Air Force leaders have now decided they no longer want to fund manned reconnaissance assets for border and drug control missions, claiming that unmanned drones are being offered to fill that need, Kinzinger said.
“Given that there are no Air Force-specific RC-26B validated requirements, nor specific means to support weapon system maintenance,” Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek told CNN, “the Air Force is proceeding with the decommissioning of the aircraft ahead.”
Proponents of the plane, including Kinzinger, say the Air Force currently has no plan to replace the RC-26’s capabilities if the program is discontinued.
A law enforcement official who previously spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity said the elimination of the RC-26 would deprive officers of the greatest advantage over drug trafficking organizations that are currently “flooding the market” with large quantities of fentanyl and killer fumes. the American 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 routinely requested assistance from Air National Guard pilots operating the RC-26.