The United States Air Force is fast-tracking a plan to shutter the small fleet of planes used to surveil drug trafficking at the border, despite criticism from law enforcement partners who claim to be losing their greatest weapon in the War on Drugs.
The Air Force has been planning to shutter the program since March, when leadership concluded that it was unlikely to receive additional funding from Congress. The National Guard pilots who fly the RC-26 aircraft had been told they’d continue operations until April 2023, after which the planes would be sold off.
On December 27, CNN reported that Air Force memos from November showed a new directive that took pilots by surprise—ordering them to turn in their planes by the end of 2022, whereupon they’d be scrapped. Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), who pilots one of the RC-26, told CNN he believes the Air Force wants them dismantled in order to thwart further attempts to salvage the program and leave the Department of Defense (DoD) with the bill.
The fleet of 11 aircraft costs approximately $30 million per year to maintain. The DoD requested a little under $856 million for drug control in 2023; the budget enacted for 2022 was over $925 million.
Law enforcement partners as well as National Guard pilots have been trying to save the fleet and continue operations, to no avail. Air Force leadership “basically made clear that DoD business is not, in essence, domestic drug issues even though DoD is one of the primary people responsible,” Kinzinger told CNN. He said it’s the Air Force’s view that, going forward, all counter-drug missions at the border should be conducted using drones.
“The Air Force is trying to say there are other options … but they don’t have the same capabilities.”
One of the police officers who collaborates with the National Guard pilots told CNN that without the RC-26, law enforcement won’t be able to keep up with the illicit fentanyl “flooding the market.”
“I know the Air Force is trying to say there are other options … but they don’t have the same capabilities.”
Yet of the people arrested by Border Patrol agents during attempts at unauthorized crossings, only around 0.2 percent are in possession of fentanyl. The vast majority of fentanyl seizures takes places at legal entry points.
It’s been obvious for decades that the DoD’s drug interdiction strategies weren’t working. Even a younger Senator Joe Biden stated in 1993 that it was “time to reassess the wisdom of devoting massive resources to the international interdiction effort—particularly to the Department of Defense, which has received the most significant funding increases … but whose programs have not proven effective.” The DoD’s counter-drug budget that year was over $1 billion, with little discernible impact on rates of drug use.
The RC-26 aircraft have on occasion been used for other purposes, such as in 2008 when they were deputized for flood relief efforts in Wisconsin. In 2020, they were used to surveil Black Lives Matter protestors, prompting an investigation by the Air Force inspector general.
Photograph of RC-26 aircraft via United States Air National Guard