Drones are nothing new. The first of them took to America's skies before the Wright Brothers plane lifted off at Kitty Hawk in 1903. In the years since, "unmanned air systems" (UAS) have played a relatively minor role in domestic aviation. All that, however, is about to change in a major way.
"UAS have evolved from simple radio controlled model airplanes to sophisticated aircraft that today play a unique role in many public missions such as border surveillance, weather monitoring, military training, wildlife surveys and local law enforcement, and have the potential to do so for many civil missions as well." So reads part of a research and development "roadmap" put out earlier this year by the U.S. Joint Planning and Development Office (a multiagency initiative that includes the Department of Transportation, Department of Defense, Department of Commerce, Department of Homeland Security, Federal Aviation Administration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy). "According to industry forecasts," the report notes, "UAS operations will increase exponentially in a variety of key military and civil areas. About 50 U.S. companies, universities, and government organizations" are developing over 150 different unmanned aircraft designs. Projections for 2010 to 2019 predict more than 20,000 UAS produced in the U.S."
In the process, count on one thing: increasing numbers of those drones will be patrolling U.S. borders.
It was only in the 1990s that the U.S. Border Patrol first began considering the use of remotely piloted aircraft. After the attacks of 9/11, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the funding bonanza that followed, the DHS's Customs and Border Protection Office began experimenting with unmanned planes. In 2005, it settled on using General Atomics' Reaper and today a fleet of nine of these drones patrol the northern and southern U.S. borders. Their brethren in America's war zones have tended to crash at an alarming rate due to weather, mechanical failures, and computer glitches, have proven vulnerable compared to manned jets, and are susceptible to all manner of electronic attack. The domestic drones, too, have failed to impress. As a recent Los Angeles Times article noted: "The border drones require an hour of maintenance for every hour they fly, cost more to operate than anticipated, and are frequently grounded by rain or other bad weather, according to a draft audit of the program last month by the Homeland Security Department's inspector general."
But don't expect such hard truths to have much impact. After all, as Todd Miller demonstrates in his inaugural TomDispatch post, border security is an arena for true believers. And despite every indication of their crash-and-burn future, expect ever more overhead, up north and down south and in-between, in the years ahead. Nick Turse
Bringing the Battlefield to the Border
The Wild World of Border Security and Boundary Building in Arizona
By Todd Miller
William "Drew" Dodds, the salesperson for StrongWatch, a Tucson-based company, is at the top of his game when he describes developments on the southern border of the United States in football terms. In his telling, that boundary is the line of scrimmage, and the technology his company is trying to sell -- a mobile surveillance system named Freedom-On-The-Move, a camera set atop a retractable mast outfitted in the bed of a truck and maneuvered with an Xbox controller -- acts like a "roving linebacker."
As Dodds describes it, unauthorized migrants and drug traffickers often cross the line of scrimmage undetected. At best, they are seldom caught until the "last mile," far from the boundary line. His surveillance system, he claims, will cover a lot more of that ground in very little time and from multiple angles. It will become the border-enforcement equivalent of New York Giants' linebacking great, Lawrence Taylor.
To listen to Dodds, an ex-Marine -- Afghanistan and Iraq, 2001-2004 -- with the hulking physique of a linebacker himself, is to experience a new worldview being constructed on the run. Even a decade or so ago, it might have seemed like a mad dream from the American fringe. These days, his all-the-world's-a-football-field vision seemed perfectly mainstream inside the brightly-lit convention hall in Phoenix, Arizona, where the seventh annual Border Security Expo took place this March. Dodds was just one of hundreds of salespeople peddling their border-enforcement products and national security wares, and StrongWatch but one of more than 100 companies scrambling for a profitable edge in an exploding market.
Vivid as he is, Dodds is speaking a new corporate language embedded in an ever-more powerful universe in which the need to build up "boundary enforcement" is accepted, even celebrated, rather than debated. It's a world where billions of dollars are potentially at stake, and one in which nothing is more important than creating, testing, and even flaunting increasingly sophisticated and expensive technologies meant for border patrol and social control, without serious
The War on Terror on the Border
Phoenix was an especially appropriate place for Border Security Expo.
After all, the Arizona-Mexico border region is Ground Zero for the development of an immigration enforcement apparatus which soon enough may travel from the southern border to a neighborhood near you.
The sold-out convention hall was abuzz with energy befitting an industry whose time has come. Wandering its aisles, you could sense the excitement, the sound of money being spent, the cacophony of hundreds of voices boosting product, the synergy of a burgeoning marketplace of ideas and dreams. General Dynamics, FLIR thermal imaging, and Raytheon banners hung from the vast ceiling, competing for eyeballs with the latest in mini-surveillance blimps. NEANY Inc.'s unmanned aerial drones and their water-borne equivalents sat on a thick red carpet next to desert-camouflaged trailer headquarters.
At various exhibits, mannequins dressed in camo and sporting guns with surveillance gizmos hanging off their helmets seemed as if they might walk right out of the exhibition hall and take over the sprawling city of Phoenix with brute force. Little imaginable for your futuristic fortressed border was missing from the hall. There were even ready-to-eat pocket sandwiches (with a three-year shelf life), and Brief Relief plastic urine bags. A stream of uniformed Border Patrol, military, and police officials moved from booth to booth alongside men in suits in what the sole protester outside the convention center called a "mall of death."