Thursday, April 19, 2012

National Guard at southwest border shifting from ‘boots on the ground to boots in the air’

The National Guard support mission known as Operation Phalanx, which initially deployed as many as 1,200 personnel to fixed ground sites along the U.S.-Mexican border, is now shifting to more of an airborne role, using rotary and fixed wing aircraft to conduct aerial detection and monitoring missions.

As two senior CBP officials told a House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing on April 17, Operation Phalanx is “essentially moving from boots on the ground to boots in the air.”

“The strategic transition to aerial support adds mobile, advanced detection and monitoring capability to the Border Patrol’s internal air and ground border security operations, helping to mitigate operational landscapes along the border, providing an additional deterrence factor; providing a faster response time; and providing flexible and adaptive capabilities in lieu of fixed sites,” said prepared testimony delivered by Ronald Vitiello, deputy chief of the office of border patrol, and Martin Vaughan, executive director of the office of air and marine southwest border operations

While acknowledging that “operating environments” differ from sector to sector, Vitiello and Vaughan provided the subcommittee with an example of how the National Guard can be more helpful operating in the air than on the ground. “An aerial platform provides a much greater field of vision for places like south Texas where a winding river and thick brush make it difficult to see from a static location on the ground,” they noted.

The ongoing transition in the role played by National Guard personnel will include about 200 troops who will provide mobile aerial detection and monitoring across all four southwest border states, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. “These individuals are supporting law enforcement interdiction operations against illicit trafficking in people, drugs, weapons, and money,” said the CBP officials.

In another example of the U.S. Defense Department cooperating with DHS along the southwest border, Customs and Border Protection is currently evaluating a war-fighting technology known as the Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar, or VaDER, on unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) deployed by CBP’s office of air and marine. VaDER can monitor vehicle and personnel movement over large areas, regardless of current atmospheric conditions, the testimony continues. “Airborne testing on the UAS began earlier this year,” said Vitiello and Vaughan, “and we are encouraged by the results.”

Also, the U.S. Army is helping CBP’s office of air and marine to acquire new UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters and converting 16 aging UH-60 Alpha model Black Hawks to the more recent Lima models.

“The new and converted Black Hawks offer greater speed and endurance, greater lift capacity, more sophisticated onboard data processing, a four-axis autopilot, altitude hold and an audible altitude alert,” they explained.