Exclusive: As More Troops Head To The U.S.-Mexico Border, Drones Designed For War Could Be Going Too

A month before President Donald Trump withdrew Patrick M. Shanahan's nomination to be installed as the permanent defense secretary, the former Boeing executive approved a Homeland Security request that would seemingly pave the way for more U.S. military drones to hover above the skies of the southwest border.

Next week, Pentagon officials will tap up to 1,000 personnel and six helicopters to head to the U.S.-Mexico border, the Defense Department confirmed to Newsweek. Drones and reconnaissance planes could be going with them, documents obtained by this publication show, as the militarization of the southwest border continues to grow.

The troops and military hardware are expected to arrive at the border around August 15 to backfill the gap created six months ago, according to a Pentagon spokesman. On Friday, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman also confirmed to Newsweek that the agency is expecting to receive the additional aerial support this month.

"Personnel identified for Operation Guardian Support backfill will be sourced from Army and Marine Corps units," said Lieutenant Colonel Chris Mitchell, a Defense Department spokesman. "The initial elements of rotary wing aircraft currently identified to support Operation Guardian Support backfill will be H-60s [helicopters]."

The Pentagon did not identify what specific U.S. Army and Marine Corps units would be tasked to deploy to the border next week.

Maintenence personel check a Predator drone operated by U.S. Office of Air and Marine (OAM), before its surveillance flight near the Mexican border on March 7, 2013 from Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista, Arizona. John Moore/Getty

In June, Newsweek reported and obtained exclusive documents from the Defense Department and found that a shortfall at the southwest border of 900 personnel and 14 aircraft left Pentagon officials to shoulder the burden of figuring out how to fill the deficiency.

The shortage of troops and aircraft was created in February when Democratic state governors pulled their National Guard troops from the border in a sharp rebuke of Trump's rhetoric of undocumented migrants posing a national security risk to the United States.

As the Trump administration continues to pursue the construction of a physical barrier between the United States and Mexico to stem the flow of migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, a region known as the Northern Triangle of Central America, Pentagon documents obtained by Newsweek show the full spectrum of U.S. military drones Defense Department officials are considering for deployment to the region.

When Newsweek asked about the decrease in aircraft needed between the May approval of 14 aircraft and the six helicopters heading for the southwest border next week, Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell, said the Pentagon, "continually reassesses support and adjusts capabilities as needed."

However, the documents obtained by Newsweek indicate the six helicopters approved to support border operations only account for a shortfall of 266 flight hours per month and are not tasked with detection and surveillance missions. Conversely, a lack of Predator drones, Apache attack helicopters and reconnaissance planes accounted for a shortfall in air support of 1,083 hours per month.

"There are no current operations on the South West [sic] Border involving the MQ-1 Predators or similar platforms," a National Guard Bureau spokeswoman told Newsweek via email in June. "We do not plan to use the MQ-1 Predator for future operations."

However, in a slide that shows the shortfalls in air support, U.S. Customs and Border Protection requested two MQ-1 Predator drones. In that same slide, Pentagon officials identified other drone platforms, known officially as unmanned aerial systems, such as the MQ-9 Reaper and the ScanEagle — aircraft that still see extensive use in both Afghanistan and Yemen.

An aerial view of cars lined up to cross into the United States (TOP) at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, one of the busiest land border crossings in the world, on the U.S.-Mexico border on March 30, 2019 in Tijuana, Mexico. Mario Tama/Getty

The Operation Guardian Support documents created by U.S. Northern Command are unclassified and for official use only.

The slides cannot be acquired through the Freedom of Information Act because they are pre-decisional and had been created before Shanahan's approval; however, the documents were part of a cache of official memos Newsweek obtained that made up Homeland Security's request to the Pentagon for additional support. Shanahan, then the acting defense secretary, approved the request in May — making the pre-decisional documents decisional.

U.S. Navy Captain Hallock N. Mohler Jr., the executive secretary to Shanahan, sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security on May 20, informing the agency that their request for additional ground support and aviation resources had been approved with the caveat that U.S. service members are barred from performing civilian law enforcement duties due to the Posse Comitatus Act, the 1878 federal statute that restricts the government's ability to use the U.S. military as a police force.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection asked the Pentagon for manned and unmanned aircraft capable of tracking moving targets and streaming live full-motion video to operating centers with electro-optical and infrared sensors — technology that allows for tracking individuals at night and via body heat.

The aircraft are also required to give reports from the air to Border Patrol personnel patrolling the southwest border and to hover around a specific area if needed.

Another document shows that Pentagon officials are considering positioning both manned and unmanned aircraft along the southwest border based on the availability of the aircraft type and approved plans.

Two Black Hawk helicopters and two U.S. Navy P-3 Orions, an aircraft designed to track enemy submarines and perform maritime surveillance, would be located near California.

Two MQ-1 Predator drones and two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters would be located at Fort Huachuca, a U.S. Army base located roughly 15 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona. The base is home to the U.S. Army Intelligence Center, the primary training facility the Army uses to train its intelligence personnel.

A pair of MQ-1 Predator drones will also be stationed at the U.S. Army base at Fort Bliss, located between New Mexico and Texas.

Two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and two MC-12s, a manned aircraft that provides intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to individuals on the ground, will be provided by the U.S. Army, but located Laughline Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas. The aircraft is apart of the Pentagon's irregular warfare mission and designed for counter-insurgency operations against militant groups such as Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria. The aircraft has also participated in foreign internal defense and building partnership capacity, according to the U.S. Air Force.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection have operated their own Predator B drones, an offshoot of the U.S. military's MQ-9 Reaper drone since fiscal year 2006; however, the MQ-1 Predators seemingly tapped to deploy to the southwest border would be provided by the U.S. Army.

In a February 2017 report to Congress from the Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog found that the cost to operate a Predator B was $5,878 per flight hour. In the documents Newsweek obtained, the MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1 Predator drones can fly 120 hours per month before needing mandatory maintenance. To put this into perspective, if the four drones were used for the total 120 hours, it would cost roughly more than $2.8 million to operate each month.

The documents also show that the Defense Department providing aircraft to U.S. Customs and Border Protection does not improve the agency's Badges to Border initiative, a policy aimed at placing more Border Patrol agents on the southern border through National Guardsmen taking over non-law enforcement-related jobs such as administrative work, vehicle maintenance and paralegal support, among other duties.

U.S. service members assigned to the U.S.-Mexico border to work in heavy equipment operations; motor transport maintenance; and controlling sensors on drone aircraft contradict the military skills the service member possess.

"Military skill — assesses if military skill is applied; working on non-DoD equipment negates military skill," concludes the documents obtained by Newsweek.

The assessment of the documents contradicts how former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general, described the military deployments to the southwest border in November 2018, when he characterized the border mission as "good training." Sig Christenson, who covers the military for the San Antonio Express-News wrote at the time that the ground troops at the border were, "already well-briefed on what to say - and not say - picked up on Mattis' description of their task and stuck to it."

"All but one soldier agreed: It's excellent training," Christenson wrote.

Scores of U.S. military service members of both political ideologies and working inside the D.C. beltway or at the U.S.-Mexico border have harshly criticized the deployments for wasteful spending and how the mission erodes military readiness.

At the Pentagon, a minority view of the southern border deployments among senior leaders praise the president's hardline crackdown on undocumented migrants entering the country; however, they too, have scolded the border mission for its misuse of personnel and equipment, despite the assignment being legal.

In late June, the Supreme Court gave Trump a victory in his quest to build a permanent wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. In a 5-to-4-ruling, the court overturned an appellate decision that paves the way for the Trump administration to use $2.5 billion in Defense Department funds for construction.

The Supreme Court decision came on the same day the president signed an agreement with Guatemala to stem the flow of Central American migrants seeking refuge in the United States.

As for the documents, published below, neither the Pentagon nor U.S. Customs and Border Protection would confirm to Newsweek if unmanned drones and surveillance planes would be among the aircraft and personnel heading to the border next week or in the coming months.

James LaPorta reports on national security and the Defense Department for Newsweek. He is a former U.S Marine infantryman and intelligence cell chief. You can follow him on Twitter @JimLaPorta.