With all the recent discussion of illegal immigration and the need to secure this country’s borders, there has been almost no attention paid to the vulnerability of these borders to air incursions. For decades, drug gangs, human traffickers, other criminals and, possibly, terrorists have been exploiting weaknesses in the aerial surveillance of America’s borders. Light airplanes launched from small airfields in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, flying low to avoid detection, have been annually transporting tons of illegal drugs and other contraband into the United States. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) has invested heavily in radar-carrying aerostats, large ground-based radar and air patrols to detect and track this air invasion but with only limited success.
The drug gangs have studied the air surveillance systems along the borders. They work hard at gaming the surveillance system, using agents on the U.S. side of the border to let aircraft fly when the aerostats are down or CBP aircraft have landed. They also have identified those sections of the border where geography and circumstances create gaps in the aerial surveillance network.
Now in addition to using aircraft to deliver narcotics and other contraband, they are employing ultralight aircraft and even unmanned aerial vehicles or drones. Ultralights and drones fly extremely low, below the height at which conventional ground and even airborne radars can detect them. They can exploit gaps in the surveillance network along the border. Each ultralight can carry several hundred pounds of cargo. They don’t even land. Rather, they drop their cargo at a pre-arranged location on the U.S. side of the border and turn around to pick up another load. Small drones, many of which can carry only a few pounds, can make multiple undetected trips a single day.
Now CBP’s Special Operations Group (SOG) is looking to deploy the means to detect and track low flying ultralights and small drones. SOG is in the final stages of testing a lightweight Man-portable Aerial Radar System (MARS), which can detect extremely low-flying aerial vehicles, including small drones. Carried in two backpacks, MARS can be deployed virtually anywhere along the border including regions where ground-based radar cannot see. Not only can MARS detect very low, slow flying and small platforms, it can pinpoint the locations where payloads are delivered. This information can be transmitted to CBP’s operations centers and even to agents in the field. Because the system is highly mobile, it can be moved frequently, countering the adversaries’ efforts to game the border surveillance network.
MARS has other extremely interesting features. In addition to aerial surveillance, the system can detect ground objects, both vehicles and people. This will enable CBP not only to follow the air vehicles as they deliver their cargoes, but track the gangs as they pick up the shipments and take them back to their safe houses.
MARS also has the potential to address a major force protection vulnerability facing the U.S. military, particularly the land components. Regional adversaries and terrorist groups are making greater use of ultralights and small drones for a variety of missions. Existing sensor systems really cannot detect and track these threats. With MARS this threat can be readily and cheaply addressed.
The SOG’s acquisition of this potentially game changing capability is due to the efforts of another government organization, the Pentagon’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office (CTTSO). The mission of the CTTSO is to identify and develop capabilities to combat terrorism and irregular adversaries and to deliver these capabilities to DoD components and interagency partners through rapid research and development, advanced studies and technical innovation, and provision of support to U.S. military operations. The CTTSO operates under a Counter Terrorism RDT&E Charter that allows it to rapidly identify, develop, train, test, modify and deliver to the users critical capabilities in response to urgent and emerging capability gaps. What can take the traditional system years to field, CTTSO can do in a matter of months. This is a great tangible example of acquisition reform in practice.
CBP is currently working hard to create a “digital wall” along the southern border. Using a combination of integrated fixed towers with both radar and electro-optical sensors, airborne surveillance capabilities, traditional ground-based radars, military assets and MARS, the U.S. will be able to create the digital complement to physical barriers and monitored entry points along our borders.
Find Archived Articles: