David Olive

Nov 30, 2010

Most of the homeland security community spent Thanksgiving week focused on whether the use of whole body imaging technology and groping techniques to find hidden explosives and other non-metallic contraband was overly intrusive, or even unconstitutional. The story that I could not get out of my head, however, was from Dane Schiller of the Houston Chronicle, “Will eye in the sky over Texas ever shift its gaze to Mexico?

The article’s prime focus is whether Predators can be used to peer across the border into Mexico. Even IF they were so used, the use of Predators to monitor illegal activity in Mexico was questioned by a former DEA agent because the threat south of the border is very different than in, say, Afghanistan.

Schiller, who regularly covers drug cartel and immigration activity along the southwest border, does America a great service in publicly stating what has been one of the so-called “dirty secrets” about the use of Predator UAVs for border enforcement purposes. The Border Patrol agents who are in pursuit and most in need of information from expensive technology are not seeing anything produced by Predator cameras.

Who sees the video?

It is unclear who gets to see the video, aside from CBP. Border Patrol agents working the front lines don”t see it, nor does the Texas Department of Public Safety, which has taken an increasing role in border security.

Officials concede that the program is so new that such matters are being fine-tuned.

CBP has six Predator birds. They each come as part of $18.5 million packages that include a mobile ground-control station and sensors.

They each weigh 5 tons, are wider than 5 lanes of interstate highway, and can stay up for 20 hours — enough time to fly the entire 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border on one tank of gas.

Somehow I have to believe that I am not the only person asking whether an $18.5 million camera and sensor system is worth the cost if the Border Patrol can’t get effective “real time use” of what it is producing – even if it does so for 20 consecutive hours.

I am told that without other assistance the Predator’s sensors, as currently configured, are not able to detect most non-vehicular traffic when doing wide-area surveillance. Open source information indicates that the Lynx radar, which is CBP’s preferred system for the Predator, can work in a GMTI (Ground Moving Target Indicator) mode, but the minimum detectable velocity is 6 knots (~11 km/hr) and target cross section is 10 dBsm – which makes it unable to detect people walking across the desert.  Rather, someone (in the field or elsewhere) must first give it directions on the specific object that it should try to locate in a specific area. The Predator is then flown to that location and allegedly can identify (with luck) what has already been detected.  (If I am not correct, I welcome someone from CBP providing a rebuttal.)

Up to this point, Congress seems to have had a love affair with large UAVs. They do have a place and can be useful in saving lives and eliminating enemies in a war zone, such as Afghanistan, where the Predator’s military version, the Reaper, is used very effectively. There may also be a role for much smaller UAVs.

As the new Congress looks for ways to carry out the ubiquitous campaign promise of eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse, I sincerely hope they will look closely at the money put into buying and operating large platform UAVs, such as the Predator, for border enforcement purposes. Dane Schiller’s article has brought to light yet another reason lawmakers should be asking questions. My question is, “Will they?”

This piece was on Security Debrief.


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