US uses more unmanned aircraft to secure border

2011-11-02

US uses more unmanned aircraft to secure border

In an operations center about 80 miles (130 kilometers) away, all eyes were on a suspicious dark cluster on a video screen. Moments later, the drone operators triggered the craft’s infrared beam and pointed the agents directly to the undergrowth where two silent figures were hiding.

Last weeks mission was just another night out for a Predator program that is playing a larger role in border security as the US Customs and Border Protection adds to its force of unmanned aircraft. The agency received its second Predator B aircraft in Texas last month and will add its sixth overall on the Southwest border when another is based in Arizona by the end of the year.

The aircraft are credited with apprehending more than 7,500 people since they were deployed six years ago. They bring the latest in military technology to one of the oldest cat-and-mouse pursuits in the country. But on the border, even sophisticated devices struggle with the weather and conditions _ just as humans do.

‘Im trying to mark. Im looking for a hole in the clouds, said an exasperated operator as he lost his video image of a hotspot in a stand of trees. Cloud cover, along with crosswinds and rain, are the drones enemies.

The aircraft can remain airborne for 30 hours though missions typically run eight or nine hours with the ground crews rotating in the control trailers. Smugglers of humans, drugs and guns are the chief prey.

The Predators, which are being used in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, were introduced on the border in 2005, the year before Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on his countrys drug gangs and violence along the border exploded. Since then, the aircraft have logged more than 10,000 flight hours and aided in intercepting 46,600 pounds (21,100 kilograms) of illegal drugs.

A Predator B unmanned aircraft lands after a mission at the Naval Air Station, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011, in Corpus Christi, Texas. Using the same technology responsible for lethal strikes elsewhere in the world, US Customs and Border Protection is expanding its use of Predator B unmanned aircraft outfitted with powerful infrared cameras and sensitive radar to patrol US borders.

Its like any other law enforcement platform, said Lothar Eckardt, director of the Office of Air and Marines Predator operation housed at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi. No different than a helicopter.

A Predator system _ the plane, sensors, control consoles and antennas _ costs $18.5 million. The crafts 66-foot (20-meter) wingspan stretches out from a relatively small body supported by spindly landing gear, making them appear almost insect-like. A single propeller powers them from behind, allowing for relatively quiet flights.

Inside the ground control trailer, a pilot and sensor operator sit side by side at consoles that include four screens each, a joystick, keyboard, several levers and rudder pedals. The pilot does the flying. The sensor operator works the infrared equipment and other technology under the aircrafts nose.

Some question whether the remotely-piloted aircrafts impact justifies the price.
The big knock on the UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) program … is that its so expensive, said T.J. Bonner, former president of the National Border Patrol Council, the agents union. He said the money would be better spent on more agents on the ground and manned aircraft.

The Predators touchiest missions are those that take it across the border into Mexico. A 2008 US diplomatic cable posted by Wikileaks described a meeting between then Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and several members of Mexicos national security cabinet in which Mexican officials appeared to enthusiastically endorse the idea of surveillance flights. But publicly Mexican officials have been loath to speak about anything that could be perceived as impinging on the nations sovereignty. In March, Mexican officials defended allowing US surveillance flights and said a Mexican official was always present in the control room.

The Predator program now has one continuous patrolling zone from the Texas-Louisiana line, down the Gulf coast and up the border to El Centro, California.

US Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo, who pushed to add the second unmanned aircraft in Texas and eventually hopes to have six based here, called them an extremely important part of the border enforcement mix of agents and technology.

At that height out there, they can cover so much territory, he said.

Arizona will add its fourth Predator in Sierra Vista to help patrol from California to New Mexico and into West Texas. Eventually, one of the Texas aircraft will receive specialized maritime radar and concentrate on searching for smugglers in the Gulf of Mexico and western Caribbean.

For now, the Predators greatest focus is along the US-Mexico border, where the drug war has increased concerns about spillover violence. They are especially valuable in night operations.


Region:  USA and Canada
Contry:  USA
Category:  UAV
Company:  Northrop Grumman



USA GA-ASI UAV
Name:  Predator   Region:  USA and Canada    Country:  USA    Category:  UAV    Company:  GA-ASI   
Predator

Use(s): long-endurance reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition/designation, weapons delivery, communications relay, SIGINT Manufacturer: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) Customers/Users: US Air Force, US Navy, Italian Air Force Powerplant: Rotax 914hp turbo Dimensions: length: 8m, wingspan: 17m Weight: empty: 567kg, MTOW: 1,043kg, max payload internal: 204kg, external: 136kg Performance: speed: 120kt, endurance: 40hr, ceiling: 25,000ft Payload: EO/IR, Lynx SAR/GMTI, SIGINT/ESM, Hellfire missiles Data Link: C-band LoS, Ku-band BLoS SATCOM Guidance/ Tracking: INS/GPS Launch: conventional wheeled Recovery: conventional wheeled Structure Material: semi-monocoque composite using pre-iimpregnated bi-directional graphite skin and Nomex honeycomb stiffening panels Status: in service



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