The U.S. Air Force is being criticized for accelerating the timeline for retiring its fleet of 11 RC-26 surveillance aircraft. The aircraft, modified versions of the Swearingen Metroliner equipped with electronic surveillance equipment, cost about $30 million per year to operate and the Air Force maintains the mission—mostly domestic border patrol and drug trafficking intervention—can be completed more effectively and inexpensively with unmanned aircraft.
According to reporting on airandspace.com last year, Lt. Gen. Michael Loh, Air National Guard director, said of the RC-26 fleet, “We need to divest that legacy and invest in the future. Stronger tomorrow is where I’m focused.”
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who serves as an Air National Guard pilot flying RC-26s, told CNN, “Law enforcement lives have been saved by having this asset available. We can see anything weird that’s going to happen.” Kinzinger added, “We’ve been saving it every year, piecemeal.”
The Air Force’s 2022 budget request held no mention of the RC-26. Loh said last year, “Each year, I’m spending millions of dollars to keep a fleet alive that quite frankly has run its useful life, and I need to actually get out of those to get into something new.”
“[The RC-26 is] the one that I focus on primarily, because that’s the one that we exclusively operate in the National Guard.” The twin turboprop, which first flew in 1969, entered Air Force service in 1989, but has been surpassed by other platforms, Loh said.
“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.”