The National Guard surveillance plane that helps get fentanyl pills off the street is about to disappear


Washington
CNN

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 an obscure military surveillance plane that law enforcement officials told CNN is a vital tool in dismantling drug-trafficking organizations. and last month alone it helped get tens of thousands of illegal fentanyl pills off the streets.

Kinzinger is among a small group of Air National Guard pilots who operate RC-26 twin-engine planes and have helped law enforcement target large shipments of fentanyl crossing the border into the US.

But despite being described as a vital asset to law enforcement officials as they conduct raids and execute search warrants, the plane is currently on the chopping block, with Air Force leaders planning to phase out 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 aerial cameras without them knowing, allowing officers to maintain the element of surprise.

“We’ve saved every year in pieces,” he said. “The guard has made it very clear. It disappeared 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 offer a replacement, according to multiple sources familiar with the discussions.

But despite self-imposed limits on the types of operations National Guard RC-26 pilots can fly, Air Force leaders have now decided they no longer want to fund reconnaissance pilots for mobility and counter-drug missions, arguing that unmanned drones can do that. offer to fill that need, Kinzinger said.

Supporters of the plane like Kinzinger say, in reality, the Air Force has no plans to replace the capabilities currently provided by the RC-26 if the program is shut down.

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

A law enforcement official who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity to speak out against the Air Force’s plans to take down the planes, said doing so would take away the biggest advantage officers currently have over drug-trafficking organizations. flooding the market” with large amounts of fentanyl and killing swathes 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 is seeking support from Air National Guard pilots who operate the RC-26.

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

While the RC-26 is used for a variety of missions, it has proven to be highly effective in helping law enforcement agencies not only intercept large quantities of fentanyl, but also arrest and build cases against violent drug traffickers who bring the deadly substance into the US.

Equipped with a wide range of surveillance tools, including infrared imaging systems and secure radio communications, the Air Force’s small fleet of RC-26 aircraft has played a prominent role in recent operations targeting the illegal shipment of fentanyl as preemptive look-in gurus. heaven for ground agents and officers, according to current and former officials.

An officer or police officer is often on board to direct the pilot where to go and, working together, they are able to gather information to help officers on the ground make decisions in real time. executing search warrants and conducting searches.

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

Each seizure prevented 10,000 potential deaths, according to a US official familiar with the operations, and the DEA says four out of 10 pills contain lethal amounts of fentanyl.

But despite proving a valuable drug interdiction asset, particularly at a time when the Biden administration is under increasing pressure to stem the flow of fentanyl into the US across the border, funding for the RC-26 aircraft is back on track. cutting 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 doesn’t make it through conference and into 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 million and $31 million a year, according to a source familiar with the program, who noted that it is “less than a drop in the fleet” given annual defense spending bills. hundreds of billions of dollars.

Kinzinger has sent a letter to the Army Services Committees asking them to keep the current language related to funding for the RC-26 in his next defense spending bill, saying that the aircraft would be kept for at least one more year and that it would require an independent evaluation. The National Guard may replace it, with a cost analysis.

But even if that happens, the long-term survival of the aircraft remains in doubt, as well as the future success of the specialized missions it currently performs.

Kinzinger is not alone in advocating for the RC-26. CNN spoke with current and former law enforcement officers in what are known as Areas of High Intensity Trafficking, who believe the plane is a critical tool in stopping the flow of illegal drugs into the US.

“I think the RC-26 is my state bird,” said Rand Allison, a recently retired narcotics officer who spent more than a decade working with RC-26 pilots as part of federal task forces to intercept illegal drug shipments.

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

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

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

If the RC-26 program is ultimately rescinded, law enforcement officials would lose their best asset to disrupt the trafficking operations that bring fentanyl across the border into the U.S., Allison told CNN.

RC-26 aircraft were also used in three drug raids in the past three weeks, in which law enforcement agencies seized a total of more than 60,000 fentanyl pills, according to federal drug task force data obtained by CNN.

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

A week later, agents with the Department of Homeland Security’s Division of Investigation made a bust in Tucson that yielded more than 25,000 pills. The next day, an HIS team in Phoenix, Arizona, seized 5,000 more pills and is building a much bigger case, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the operation.

However, a law enforcement official who works with Air National Guard pilots to conduct counter-narcotics operations acknowledged that they are “winning a lot of battles but losing the war on fentanyl,” making the RC-26’s survival even more critical.

For the past eight years, Kinzinger has been at the forefront of efforts to save his plane from extinction and maintain its ability to fly the types of missions that have endeared him to law enforcement officials across multiple agencies.

Now, the RC-26 is at risk of being phased out again due to changing Air Force leadership priorities that no longer include border flying or counter-drug missions, according to the Republican lawmaker, who chose not to run for re-election. but he is using his last few months in Congress to, in part, advocate for the airline’s survival.

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