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US Border Patrol deploying sixth predator drone

The Americas Post - The US Border Patrol drone program began under President George W. Bush

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency added a second Predator B aircraft in Texas in October and will soon deploy another based in Arizona, bring total active drones on the Mexico border up to six by the end of the year.

Since they were first deployed six years ago, the unmanned aircraft are credited with apprehending more than 7,500 people.  Although drones can remain airborne for 30 hours, missions typically run eight or nine hours with ground crews rotating in control trailers.  With infrared viewing capability, they are especially valuable in night operations.  Smugglers of humans, drugs and guns are the primary target.

The Predators, widely used in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, were introduced on the border in 2005, the year before violence exploded there when Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on that nation’s drug cartels. Since then, the aircraft have logged more than 10,000 flight hours and aided in intercepting 46,600 pounds of illegal drugs.

“It’s like any other law enforcement platform,” says Lothar Eckardt, who directs the Office of Air and Marine’s Predator operation out of Corpus Christi Naval Air Station. “It’s no different than a helicopter.”

Each Predator system costs $18.5 million, including the plane, sensors, control consoles and antennas.  The craft’s 66-foot wings stretch from a relatively small body mounted on spindly landing gear, making them resemble giant insects.  A single rear propeller allows for relatively quiet flights.

Some disagree that benefits derived from the remotely-piloted aircraft justify the significant price.

“The big knock on the UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) program … is that it’s so expensive,” says T.J. Bonner, former president of the Border Patrol agents’ union.  Looking out for member jobs, he feels the money would be better spent on manned aircraft and more boots on the ground.

The Predator’s most delicate missions take it across the border into Mexico. According to a 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable posted by Wikileaks,  Mexican officials strongly supported the idea of surveillance flights in a meeting between then Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and several members of Mexico’s national security cabinet.  Publicly however, Mexican officials are reluctant to say anything that could be perceived as imposing on their  national sovereignty.  In March, Mexican officials said that one of them is always present in the control room during U.S. surveillance flights.

The Predator program now covers an unbroken range from the Texas-Louisiana state line, down the Gulf coast and along the Mexican border to El Centro, Calif. The next will be based in Sierra Vista, Arizona, to patrol from California to New Mexico and even into West Texas.  One of the Texas aircraft is eventually expected to receive specialized maritime radar in order to detect smugglers in the Gulf of Mexico and western Caribbean.