DHS Increases Use of Drones on Southern Border

ABC News' Jason Ryan reports:

Tomorrow the Department of Homeland Security will be expanding their use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) along the Southwest border to provide support and reconnaissance to Border Patrol Agents with the arrival of a new Predator-B aircraft upping Customs and Border Protection’s fleet of drones to seven aircrafts. As violence flares in Mexico’s drug war, DHS recently highlighted their efforts to secure the border noting that DHS has deployed historic levels of personnel to the Southwest border and that they have increased southbound inspections of vehicles and railcars to intercept cash and weapons that flow south to the cartels.

A press release issued late on Monday by DHS noted, “Since [March 2009], the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has doubled the number of personnel assigned to border enforcement security task forces; tripled the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers working along the U.S.-Mexico border; quadrupled deployments of border liaison officers; and begun screening 100 percent of southbound rail shipments for illegal weapons, drugs, and cash.”

The Obama administration has also recently authorized and provided funding for the deployment of up to 1,200 National Guard troops to assist agents on the border, but only as skeleton crew has reported for duty and is operational at this time. Military officials say they expect to have all 1,200 troops in place by the end of September.

As more boots on the ground are deployed the roll out of the additional Predator will provide high tech air support capability which officials view as a valuable asset to provide surveillance on huge swaths of desert and remote territory. The craft can stay airborne for 30 hours and fly up to speeds of 250 knots loaded with sensors that track multiple targets ranging from drug smugglers to illegal immigrants.

Tomorrow the new Predator-B will be flying from an operations center in Sierra Vista, Arizona to be stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas, where it will be outfitted and readied for operations that will begin in the next few days. The craft will be on display at an official ribbon cutting ceremony slated for next Wednesday. With the Texas Predator-B becoming operational CBP officials say they will have complete aerial coverage of the southern border spanning from Texas on the Gulf of Mexico to eastern California. The Predators are not permitted to fly over dense population areas like those in western California.

CBP’s Office of Air and Marine operate the Predators and have steadily been increasing the use of the aircraft since one of the $14 million Predator’s crashed in May of 2006. DHS had none in service for 9 months after the crash but have been bringing more online since then. Predators patrol the southwest border from bases in California, Sierra Vista, Arizona and a maritime version of the Predator, called a Guardian, that flies out of Cape Canaveral on missions looking to interdict drug smugglers and support Coast Guard operations off the coast of Florida. Customs and Border Protection also flies two Predators out of North Dakota to patrol the vast expanses and prairies on the northern border as well.

Custom’s Air and Marine officers fly the aircraft from their local bases but technology also allows them to be operated from remote locations so officers in North Dakota can operate the aircraft in the Southern border if needed. This is often done in training missions according to officials. Recent congressional funding has also slated the funding of two additional Predators, which would bring the fleet to nine UAS platforms, but those are not expected to come online until 2012, according to DHS officials.

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