North By Northwest

By Matthew Harwood

Another part of the CBP’s northern strategy is the use of drones. Commonly reaching altitudes of 21,000 feet, two unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) now regularly cruise the skies over the northern border watching out for illegal activity. Based out of Grand Forks Air Force Base in Grand Forks, North Dakota, the two Predator Bs patrol approximately 950 miles of northern border between Spokane, Washington, and Lake-of-the-Woods, Minnesota.

The Predator B, first deployed on the northern border in 2009 by CBP’s Office of Air and Marine, can stay aloft for approximately 20 hours during each mission. It’s an ability the CBP’s 52 other fixed-wing and rotary aircraft stationed at the northern border can’t compete with. “These UASs significantly enhance CBP’s situational awareness in areas that are difficult to reach by other operational elements—a critical capability in the rugged terrain along the northern border,” CBP Office of Air and Marine Assistant Commissioner Maj. Gen. Michael Kostelnik (ret.) told a House subcommittee this summer.

The Predators come armed with synthetic aperture radar and a high-powered video camera, which the CBP uses to perform reconnaissance and real-time surveillance along the northern border, says Director of Air Operations John Priddy, who heads the CBP’s National Air Security Operations Center-Grand Forks (NASOC).

One of the most important tasks the Predators perform is radar mapping. They use synthetic aperture radar, which generates black-and-white images of the landscape. The images allow CBP agents to identify vehicle marks and help distinguish human tracks—a likely sign of illegal crossings—from animal tracks. Eventually, it is hoped that this will allow CBP to identify problem areas and deploy personnel and resources, such as sensors, accordingly. The idea is that when a sensor goes off, CBP can dispatch a drone overhead, receive real-time situational awareness, and transmit that intelligence to border patrol or other law enforcement partners to craft the appropriate response.

Law enforcement personnel crave situational awareness. They want to know whether they’re responding to 50 illegal migrants crossing the border or 50 armed men trafficking drugs, Priddy notes. “That’s something people don’t realize: this is actually the way to refine asset management or resource allocation and be more efficient,” he explains. And it’s already being done on the Southwest border, where CBP has a fuller intelligence picture that allows the agency to target known smuggling routes.

Along the northern border, the Predators have also been deployed to provide stealth surveillance in support of law enforcement investigations, such as those conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That’s especially helpful when a car can’t follow someone without being noticed.



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