Surveillance Facility Opens On Northern Border

October 17, 2006

Surveillance facility opens on northern U.S. border
By Chris Strohm, National Journal's Technology Daily

The Homeland Security Department on Monday opened the first of three new aviation facilities along the northern border with Canada. It features advanced surveillance and detection aircraft and paves the way for deploying an unmanned drone possibly as early as next year, according to officials and lawmakers.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers hailed the opening of the Great Falls Air Branch in Montana as a milestone in northern border security. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., took credit for securing $7.6 million in fiscal 2007 for the branch.

“I emphasized to my colleagues on the Senate Appropriations Committee how critically important this funding is for the Great Falls Air Wing branch,” Burns said. “Montana and this country are safer today because we have planes in the air right now. This funding will ensure their operation in the future, bringing jobs to the Great Falls community and improved security on the northern border.”

The branch employs 52 law enforcers, pilots, aircrew and mission-support personnel, and it operates two UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters, two Cessna 550 Citation II interdiction aircraft and one Pilatus PC-12 surveillance aircraft.

“The Great Falls Air Branch will provide an important means of patrolling and providing surveillance and intelligence on remote crossing points,” Customs and Border Protection Assistant Commissioner Michael Kostelnik said. “The speed and accessibility provided by aircraft will ensure a routine presence in locations rarely patrolled by conventional ground transportation.”

CBP plans to open another air branch in Grand Forks, N.D., next summer or fall and the third in Detroit, Mich., probably in fiscal 2008, an agency spokesman said. Two branches were opened in 2004 in Bellingham, Wash., and Plattsburg, N.Y.

The spokesman said CBP plans to use an unmanned aerial vehicle along the northern border “in a year or two.” The department has not conducted UAV flights anywhere along the border since its only operational Predator B crashed in April outside of Nogales, Ariz. The spokesman said the department received a new Predator B last month and plans to begin flying it by Oct. 31 along the Arizona border with Mexico.

A replacement for the UAV that crashed is expected to be bought in April, and two more Predator Bs are expected to go into operation in fall 2007, the spokesman added. One of those could be deployed along the northern border, he said.

The fiscal 2007 appropriations bill for the Homeland Security Department directs the department to work with the Federal Aviation Administration to test UAVs for security missions and surveillance along the northern border. Burns also took credit for that mandate.

“Technology like UAVs will enable us to more closely monitor the northern border and provide real-time imaging,” he said.