National Guard September 2012 : Page 36
Grande Eyes By Andrew Waldman T he G uard security mission on the southwest border has shifted from the ground to the air , with some good early return on investment LAREDO, Texas HE RIO GRANDE River ﬂows for 1,248 miles along the international border between Texas and Mexico, comprising most of the 1,969 miles that make up the entire U.S. border with its southern neighbor. Like a serpent, the river slips through mountains, ﬂat lands and deserts, split-ting cities and dividing families. T | Members of the National Guard are getting to know every twist and curve of the river, each narrow stretch and shal-low point ripe for potential crossings. As part of Operation River Watch II, they monitor the waterway for ille-gal crossings and drug smuggling that happen every day somewhere along this meandering channel. Since 95 percent of Texas land is owned privately, those living along the border often feel the effects of those activities ﬁrsthand. This is in contrast to other border states where much of the border land is owned by the government. People on the border know the risks associated with the smuggling of contraband and people over the bor-der, says Maj. Gen. John Nichols, the Texas adjutant general. The rest of the country might not notice the problem, but it’s there. “The farther you get from the bor-der, the safer you think it is,” he says. T EXAS B ORDER H ISTORY The territory that now comprises the state of Texas has ﬂown under the ﬂags of six countries, including France, Spain, Mexico, the short-lived Repub-lic of Texas, the Confederate States of 36 Na tional Guard
The Guard security mission on the southwest border has shifted from the ground to the air, with some good early return on investment<br /> <br /> LAREDO, Texas THE RIO GRANDE River flows for 1,248 miles along the international border between Texas and Mexico, comprising most of the 1,969 miles that make up the entire U.S. border with its southern neighbor.<br /> <br /> Like a serpent, the river slips through mountains, flat lands and deserts, splitting cities and dividing families.<br /> <br /> Members of the National Guard are getting to know every twist and curve of the river, each narrow stretch and shallow point ripe for potential crossings.<br /> <br /> As part of Operation River Watch II, they monitor the waterway for illegal crossings and drug smuggling that happen every day somewhere along this meandering channel.<br /> <br /> Since 95 percent of Texas land is owned privately, those living along the Border often feel the effects of those activities firsthand. This is in contrast to other border states where much of the border land is owned by the government.<br /> <br /> People on the border know the risks associated with the smuggling of contraband and people over the border, says Maj. Gen. John Nichols, the Texas adjutant general. The rest of the country might not notice the problem, but it’s there.<br /> <br /> “The farther you get from the border, the safer you think it is,” he says.<br /> <br /> TEXAS BORDER HISTORY<br /> <br /> The territory that now comprises the state of Texas has flown under the flags of six countries, including France, Spain, Mexico, the short-lived Republic of Texas, the Confederate States of America and, finally, the United States.<br /> <br /> And the state is no stranger to trouble along that border.<br /> <br /> Col. James Kenyon, chief of staff of Texas Military Forces domestic operations, says there have been numerous iterations of the River Watch mission since 2006, when President George W. Bush worked with the governors of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to use 6,000 Guardsmen to augment the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.<br /> <br /> That mission, called Operation Jump Start, sent aviation and ground troops to provide additional boots on the ground, eyes in the sky and intelligence analysts to help CBP curb illegal immigration and drug trafficking.Jump Start put 1,700 troops in Texas and lasted until 2008.<br /> <br /> In 2010, President Barack Obama funded a similar Guard mission, but with a smaller force. Texas received about 280 troops for that mission, which was called Operation River Watch and ended last February.<br /> <br /> The initial River Watch included both intelligence analysts and boots on the ground support for the customs folks. But while Texas has the largest share of the entire border, it received funding for a relatively small number of personnel. That brought mixed results, Nichols says.<br /> <br /> “There was criticism because… we didn’t see a lot of payback from that,” says Nichols. “When we had the boots on the ground, there was some criticism because it cost a lot of money.”<br /> <br /> But Nichols says the mission did have at least one unquantifiable success.<br /> <br /> It forced illegal movement across the border into more remote areas, allowing civilian agencies like CBP to more easily capture contraband and illegal immigrants coming over the border.<br /> <br /> BOOTS IN THE SKY<br /> <br /> Another federally funded state border mission was authorized from March until the end of this year. It is known as Operation River Watch II.<br /> <br /> The new mission provides 320 hours monthly of aviation support to the CBP in Texas. River Watch II is staffed by 140 Guard personnel from 12 states comprising Task Force Liberty.<br /> <br /> A similar mission in Arizona, called Operation Guardian Eye, provides CBP support along that state’s stretch of border.<br /> <br /> The Texas task force flies missions out of Laredo, Harlingen and Brownsville using the Guard’s newest helicopter, the UH-72 Lakota. The birds are drawn from the inventory of the participating states, and all are equipped with the mission equipment package (MEP).<br /> <br /> Each evening, Lakotas launch from their bases with a crew consisting of two pilots, a crew chief and one CBP agent to perform missions called in from Border Patrol personnel on the ground who require aerial tracking or surveillance.<br /> <br /> People crossing illegally take advantage of the darkness, making nighttime the busiest transit period of the day. The CBP’s aerial reconnaissance units are not equipped with surveillance equipment that can operate in the dark. That’s where the Lakota’s MEP comes in handy.<br /> <br /> With infrared capabilities and a high-powered searchlight, the Lakota can easily track people on the ground.A chief warrant officer from Arkansas who pilots Lakotas calls the aircraft “awesome.”<br /> <br /> “You can go from 5,000 feet and still get a great picture,” he says.<br /> <br /> The Texas Guard asked that names of Guardsmen involved in the mission not be used for the safety of the soldiers.<br /> <br /> Justin Needham, the acting assistant Chief for the CBP region that includes Laredo, says the National Guard support has been extremely valuable.<br /> <br /> “The aerial support is providing us with totally different and needed support we didn’t have,” says Needham.<br /> <br /> Needham says the boots on the ground approach used for Operations Jump Start and River Watch I was helpful, but aerial surveillance is “pretty tough to outrun.”<br /> <br /> Each Border Patrol agent aboard a Lakota also works on the ground and is aware of the challenges associated with the ground environment and able to translate the intelligence gathered by the Lakota into a format easily used by agents below.<br /> <br /> That translation is key because working on the ground is tricky. While it is easy to spot people crossing the Rio Grande itself, it is most challenging to track individuals who are just about to enter Laredo, a dense urban area.<br /> <br /> “Literally, you have seconds by the time they cross the river until they are in the neighborhood,” says Needham.<br /> <br /> Needham says River Watch II is off to an impressive start. According to Task Force Liberty numbers, the new operation has resulted in 6,984 apprehensions in less than two months, while the first River Watch mission netted just 4,002 in 30 months.<br /> <br /> Similar successes are being tracked in observations, turnbacks, “got aways,” which is the term for individuals who were spotted but not captured, and marijuana seizures.<br /> <br /> Nichols admits that the numbers are a little surprising to him.<br /> <br /> “I personally wasn’t all that sure that putting helicopters in the air would have a better effect than putting boots on the ground,” says Nichols.“But if you look at the numbers of apprehensions, they are actually up.” <br /> <br /> A captain from Alabama who is a pilot says there has been an impact on drug trafficking lanes as a result of the Lakota support.<br /> <br /> “The cartels are tripping over each other,” he says, as they are forced into narrower and fewer crossing points.<br /> <br /> The Lakota is a new helicopter and has been reliable, but the lack Of air conditioning in the cockpit has caused the advanced electronics systems to overheat in the border’s 100-plus degree conditions. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the aircraft’s windows must stay closed in flight.<br /> <br /> “The avionics fans can’t keep up with this 110-111-degree ambient temperature,” says an Alabama sergeant first class on the task force.<br /> <br /> Task Force Liberty is made up of members of regional security and support aviation battalions. Six such battalions around the nation provide air movement, aerial sustainment, search and rescue, command and control, medical evacuation, casualty evacuation, observation and intelligence, and surveillance and reconnaissance.<br /> <br /> The task force last month included soldiers from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.<br /> <br /> “We have a ball,” says the Alabama sergeant first class. “That is one plus out of this mission. … Everybody’s state experience makes everything flow better. We are using all the knowledge we have to work together.”<br /> <br /> FUTURE BORDER MISSIONS<br /> <br /> As a state with a long border to protect, Texas has ongoing programs that help augment River Watch II.<br /> <br /> The National Guard’s Counterdrug Program, for example, has a significant presence in Texas, and has an impact on the border. It has various personnel stationed throughout the state with local, state and federal agents working on drug interdiction.<br /> <br /> The counterdrug aviation unit, which includes MEP-enabled Lakotas, supports intelligence gathering operations that don’t always overlap with Task Force Liberty’s work.<br /> <br /> “It’s pretty complementary,” says Brig. Gen. William Smith, the director of Texas’ Joint Force Headquarters.“And it kind of forces the state guys to work with the federal guys to come up with a more comprehensive plan.”<br /> <br /> Nichols says he hopes River Watch II will be funded past the cutoff date of Dec. 31. Right now, he says, illegal border crossings are down, but that could change any day.<br /> <br /> Since the National Guard already has the local knowledge and expertise to operate within communities, Nichols believes that the Guard is the natural choice to continue border operations.<br /> <br /> The National Guard in those states which border Mexico has spent years building relationships with local officials that are hard to replicate.Nichols says that will be important in the future as overseas operations wind down and active-component units return from deployments.<br /> <br /> An active-component Army aviation unit is already flying missions on the border in an operation known as Iron Horse.<br /> <br /> That mission, Nichols predicts, could be a blueprint for something in the future if Army units go looking for new missions.<br /> <br /> Nichols cautions, however, that border-security missions might not be the best fit for an active-component outfit without local connections.<br /> <br /> “Frankly, that’s the DoD’s job,” Nichols says of border security. “But the National Guard is the best at that job.”<br /> <br /> Andrew Waldman can be contacted at 202-408-5892 or andrew.waldman@ ngaus.org.