- The Washington Times - Monday, November 6, 2006

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has launched its newest weapon in securing the nation’s borders with the debut of an unmanned aerial vehicle capable of providing an “eye in the sky” for Border Patrol agents on the ground.

“Our front-line agents deserve proven, effective technology that equips them to secure our borders and to prevent terrorism,” CBP Commissioner W. Ralph Basham said. “This unmanned aircraft system provides us with the situational awareness we need to more effectively deny illegal entry at our nation’s borders.”

The agency’s new unmanned aircraft, known as the MQ-9 Predator B, began limited operations last week from Libby Army Airfield in Fort Huachuca, Ariz., to support enforcement activities along the U.S.-Mexico border. The aircraft was introduced during ceremonies Tuesday in Arizona hosted by Air and Marine Assistant Commissioner Michael Kostelnik.

The agency hopes to expand operations to the California and New Mexico state lines in the next month.

Unmanned aircraft give the agency improved and expanded mission capabilities to meet what Mr. Basham has described as “the continuing terrorist threat to our nation.” He said the program supports efforts by CBP to expand specialized teams and rapid-response capabilities within the agency to enhance control of the nation’s borders.

New unmanned aircraft systems within CBP are designed to augment crewed air and marine assets and ground interdiction agents already on the southwest border. In fiscal 2007, the aircraft will complement crewed air and marine assets and ground interdiction agents on the northern border and the Gulf Coast.

Mr. Basham said the aircraft have the potential to coordinate operations within other Department of Homeland Security agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He said his agency also will work closely with the Defense Department to “gain efficiencies in acquisition, testing, training and deployment.”

In 2004, CBP conducted operational tests and evaluations using the Hunter and Hermes unmanned aircraft vehicles, and last year, the agency conducted operational tests using the MQ-9 Predator B. Since 2004, unmanned aircraft have flown 1,878 hours and directly contributed to 3,603 arrests and the seizure of 11,000 pounds of marijuana.

Mr. Basham has called border enforcement “a legal issue as well as a matter of national security,” saying the United States “simply must keep people from crossing our borders undetected if we are going to protect our homeland.”

To achieve that goal, he has been a vigorous proponent of efforts to better secure the border through a strategy aimed at increasing the number of Border Patrol agents and equipping them with the proper tools, including new roads, lights, fences, barriers, upgraded technology and unmanned aerial vehicles.

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