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September 1, 2010 / J. Shaw

Predator B: Weapon or Waste? For Border Patrol

Midnight in the Arizona desert. The skies are black, scorpions scamper across the tarmac and Border Patrol agents warn us this is rattlesnake season.

But the reason for our visit to Fort Huachuca isn’t about natural history. It’s about a different, but equally dangerous species that calls the Sonoran Desert home – the Customs and Border Protection Predator B.

Early Predators earned respect overseas, wiping out key members of Al Queda in Afghanistan without ever being seen. They fly at a variety of altitudes with payloads ranging from missiles to cameras to radar. Versatile, these unmanned ariel vehicles (UAV’s) fly up to 20 hours without refueling and do so without endangering pilots, who guide the aircraft by remote control tens to hundreds of miles away.

Success on the battlefield, especially as a high-flying surveillance plane, prompted the Department of Homeland Security to invest in a civilian version of the Predator for use on the border. Currently the agency operates 6 Predators, two on the northern border, three along the Mexican border and one in the Caribbean. Last month, Congress appropriated another $32 million for two more Predators to be based out of Texas.

“I think the original intent was more of a tactical application,” says Dave Gasho, head of CBP Air Operations in Ft. Huachuca. “But the aircraft has grown into more of a strategic, big picture platform that helps us monitor or control large areas through intelligence gathering.”

As such, Gasho says CBP Operations and Intelligence analysts come up with daily lists of tasks for the Predator, ranging from confirming new migration routes into the U.S. used by smugglers to drug drop houses along the border. The plane’s infrared camera and high powered optics can pick up human and vehicle traffic from 2 miles above. Based on its findings, field agents will bust a location or adjust their enforcement priorities.

“Fifteen million dollars for what amounts to a moving camera platform is a bit excessive when you can have other technology that is just as useful and more effective in some cases, that costs a lot less,” say critics like T.J. Bonner, President of the National Border Patrol Council, a union that represents more than 12,000 Border Patrol agents.

“We already spot more traffic than we can apprehend. We need more boots on the ground so we can apprehend what were spotting now.”

At $15 million a piece – for the aircraft and the electronics package necessary to fly it – Predator supporters have their work cut out for them. Especially when every branch of DHS is fighting to justify its budget and gain recognition in the war against illegal immigration.

The reality is, DHS is still working out the kinks. Exactly how the Predator will integrate with day-to-day field operations is yet to be determined. Some critics say they see it as overkill – a $20 hammer to kill an ant when a $1 fly-swatter would do. They would prefer two $6 million Blackhawk helicopters or several dozen fixed camera-radar towers along the border to accomplish the same mission.

But supporters say there is nothing like it. Virtually trouble free, with a 90% operational readiness score, no platform can simultaneously track two border incursions miles apart, while a pilot with a joystick radios real time coordinates to agents in the field. Gasho also says the Predator is the perfect complement to the Border Patrol’s underground sensor system. Frequently sensors go off high in the mountains or in remote areas of the desert, far from agents. Rather than send them on an hour drive only find out the sensor was set off by a deer, the Predator can confirm false positives from seven miles away using only its camera.

“I can tell you the $15 million is worth it,” Gasho says. “Now we can focus on the border in a much wider area.”

Read more:      Article by William La Jeunesse


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