Having served as an integral part of US Air National Guard (ANG) counter-narcotics operations for the last 30 years, the US Air Force (USAF) is now moving to accelerate the retirement of its 11-strong fleet of Fairchild RC-26B Condor reconnaissance aircraft – a type the service has been pushing to divest in recent years.
The USAF’s plan to withdraw its RC-26B fleet took a step forward on December 28, 2022, when pilots assigned to the 115th Fighter Wing (FW) – a component of the Wisconsin ANG – at Truax Field Air National Guard Base (ANGB) in Madison, Wisconsin, completed their final operational Condor flight. In total, a group of seven 115th FW pilots and two Military Information Support Operators (MISOs) were detailed to the ANG’s Counterdrug Program by flying the RC-26B in support of state- and federal-level counter-narcotics, counterinsurgency and homeland security missions.
Lt Col Benjamin West, the RC-26 Program Manager with the Wisconsin ANG, expressed his appreciation for the Condor crews and their dedication to their mission. “The hours and the expertise of all of the aircrew is just surreal. Officers, civilians, suspects, families and regular citizens who have no idea that the reason that they are alive is because those guys were experts at their jobs, helped chase down and arrest drug dealers in ways that could not have been done in any other platform,” he said.
An extensively modified version of Fairchild’s propeller-driven Swearingen Metroliner, the RC-26B was designed to serve as a reconnaissance aircraft capable of finding and mapping targets in support of counter-narcotic and aerial firefighting operations using electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) imaging systems. The platform entered operational USAF service to support domestic law enforcement operations in 1989, with the 11-strong fleet being spread out across units in Alabama, Arizona, California, Iowa, Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Washington.
According to the USAF, the RC-26B provided an aerial surveillance option for state- and federal-level law enforcement agencies, enabling them to cut down on high-speed chases and gather evidence on drug trafficking organisations. The platform was also capable of relaying video footage of natural disasters to both civil and military agencies on the ground in times of crisis.
Commenting on the RC-26B’s retirement, US Army Col Paul Felician – director of the Wisconsin National Guard’s Counterdrug Program, who has also served as a law enforcement officer for more than 29 years – said: “Having spent a large time of my policing career in narcotics work, I can tell you that this mission saves people’s lives. The stuff that this aircraft enabled law enforcement to do took more drugs off the street and kept people safe from having to go into the direct risk of harm. It’s a sad day to see it go away.”
In recent years, that is exactly what the USAF has wanted – for the RC-26B to ‘go away’ – but its request to retire the fleet as part of both the Fiscal Year 2020 and 2021 (FY20/21) National Defense Authorization Acts (NDAAs) were blocked by the US Congress. Despite these setbacks, the Air Force continued to argue that maintaining the three-decade-old Condor fleet costs $30m per year, claiming that other aircraft had surpassed the RC-26B’s capabilities. There was no request by the USAF to retire its Condor fleet in the FY22 NDAA.
Speaking to reporters about the RC-26B’s future at a roundtable discussion during the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference on September 22, 2021, Lt Gen Michael A Loh – the incumbent director of the ANG – said: “It’s an old aircraft, and there’s current language right now that says I can’t retire the fleet, or even expend money to prepare to retire that fleet… 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 something new.
“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,” he added.
However, unlike the USAF’s ongoing debate with Congress on the retirement of the Fairchild Republic A-10C Thunderbolt II close air support/ground attack aircraft, the former’s wish to divest its Condor fleet was granted in the FY23 NDAA, which was approved and became law without any objection to the move. A formal retirement date for the outgoing reconnaissance aircraft has yet to be outlined, but the Air Force is moving to divest the fleet at an accelerated pace.
At present, it has yet to be determined what the RC-26B fleet will be replaced with in operational service, whether it will be a manned or unmanned platform – with modern examples of both types of aircraft being more than capable to take on the Condor’s mission. One thing is now clear though, the Condor has entered the twilight of its operational career and is set to be removed from service quickly, but will it be replaced with such pace? Only time will tell.