No current plan exists to replace the RC-26 aircraft despite the Air Force speeding up the program's dismantling, as reported by CNN.
Even though the spy planes are relied on heavily to monitor fentanyl smuggling across the U.S./Mexico border, National Guard pilots are being told to scrap the aircraft earlier than expected. Originally reported to face an April 2023 retirement for the planes, pilots received new orders in November 2022 to ditch them before the end of the year.
Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) who is also a pilot in the Air National Guard, told CNN that he has been fighting to have the program replaced or extended.
“Law enforcement lives have been saved by having this asset available,” Kinzinger told the outlet. “We can see anything weird that’s going to happen,” he added.
Rep. Kinzinger, whose profile was elevated drastically after being one of two Republicans in favor of the January 6 committee, says he met with Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall but was essentially told there was no way the program would continue.
Kinzinger claims that the secretary made it clear "that DoD business is not, in essence, domestic drug issues even though DoD is one of the primary people responsible."
Air Force officials have countered the narrative by stating their drones will fill the void of any manned planes. Using the drones “leaves no capability gap," an official told CNN.
“Given there is no Air Force specific RC-26B validated requirements nor dedicated funding to support sustainment of the weapons system,” Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek told CNN, “the Air Force is moving forward with the retirement of the aircraft.”
In November 2022, the planes were used in three separate fentanyl busts, totaling approximately 22,500 pills each, according to data provided by CNN.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, fiscal year 2022 saw nearly 15,000 pounds of fentanyl seized at the southern border, the fifth-highest seizure rate of any one drug, with methamphetamine and khat tied for the highest at 175,000 pounds.
However, if fiscal year 2023 numbers continue on their average, fentanyl seizures will more than double their 2022 totals.
Rep. Kinzinger wrote for the Air Force Times in 2019 criticizing the eventual decision, stating that it "undermines Trump's border security priorities."