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Role of unmanned aircraft questioned.

UNTIL APRIL 25, THE Department of Homeland Security was high on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to patrol the southern border. That's when its lone Predator B aircraft crashed in the middle of the night in the desert northwest of Nogales, Ariz.

DHS and Customs and Border Protection had touted the success of the UAV, and planned to add a second this summer. Whether there will be two Predators will be up to congressional appropriators, who are awaiting a final report from the National Transportation Safety Board on the cause of the crash.

Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar told National Defense that CBP still plans on maintaining a fleet of two Predators. The second should arrive on the southwest border in August, he said after a House hearing. As for a replacement for the lost aircraft, that remains to be decided.

"We're looking at ... potentially replacing it and how we will replace it," Aguilar said. It may depend on where the liability lies for the crash, he added.

An NTSB preliminary report indicates pilot error. The pilot, operating the aircraft from Libby Army Airfield, Sierra Vista, Ariz., told investigators that the controls on his console locked up. As a backup, he switched to a second console, which doubles as the control system for the cameras and sensors. The pilot failed to match the control positions on the second console to the first as required, and he did not notice that the fuel cutoff switch was turned on. With its fuel cut off, the Predator lost power and crashed, according to the report.

While the use of UAVs to keep tabs on remote areas of the border has its proponents, the crash has given ammunition to critics.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which represents general aviation concerns, has lobbied Congress to restrict UAV use, particularly in the altitudes where its members fly. The association has the ear of at least one appropriator, Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., who after receiving a briefing from the association's lobbyists, grilled a Customs and Border Protection official at a hearing as to why general aviation concerns didn't have a seat at the table when the UAV procedures were being discussed, according to an association statement.

The official said if the sensors aboard the aircraft could be upgraded, then it could operate at the 18,000-foot level, and no longer be of concern to pilots of small aircraft.

Where and when UAVs can fly in U.S. airspace remains the purview Of the Federal Aviation Administration, which has taken a conservative stance on their use. The FAA may be busy in the coming months.

President Bush's plan to send 6,000 National Guard troops to tighten the southern border will have a heavy surveillance component. Guard members will be flying fixed and rotary wing aircraft, high-altitude balloons and may add smaller UAVs that are normally used in military operations into the mix, Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, told the House Armed Services Committee.

UAVs have a practical role to play in law enforcement "in an appropriate environment, and the border is an appropriate environment," he said.

The military has provided UAV capability to Customs and Border Protection in the past, McHale said. Pilots training out of Fort Huachuca, Ariz. routinely pass on information to the agency.

"They fly missions almost every day and we robustly share that information with border security law enforcement officials," McHale told the committee. The Pentagon has also provided coverage for specific missions when asked, he said.

Blimps and aerostats, tethered balloons that can provide persistent surveillance, is one technology the Border Patrol would like to see in the mix for its so-called "virtual fence" as it seeks requests for proposals for the secure border initiative this fall, Aguilar told the committee.

Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said the guard will use 0H-58 helicopters and RC-26 fixed wing aircraft for border surveillance. As for UAVs, "It's reasonable to expect we will overcome the bureaucratic hurdles,' he said, referring to FAA restrictions.
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Title Annotation:SURVEILLANCE
Author:Magnuson, Stew
Publication:National Defense
Date:Jul 1, 2006
Previous Article:Border patrol: troops use frontier for real-world training.
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