As the US-Mexico border becomes increasingly militarized, the US government now anticipates deploying the MQ-9 Reaper drone to the border, according to congressional testimony that has not been reported until now.
Two National Guard generals told a House committee this summer that they expect the Reaper to be used. One said his state’s National Guard has begun the process to acquire them.
The Reaper, a state-of-the-art hunter-killer drone, is no ordinary drone. Capable of carrying 15 times more ordnance than its predecessor, the Predator drone, one of the Reaper’s major advantages is its considerable size—a 64-foot wingspan—and payload capacity. With a maximum takeoff weight of 2,250 pounds, the Reaper is capable of carrying four Hellfire missiles for 1,150 miles. A Hellfire’s blast radius reportedly can exceed 15 meters, depending on the model.
The two generals did not address the Reaper’s weapons capabilities in their testimony. Instead, several times during the hearing, both National Guard and Border Patrol officials referenced the Guard’s emphasis on intelligence collection and surveillance at the Southern border. The Reaper is able to carry far larger amounts of surveillance equipment than other drones can.
Word of the Reaper’s possible use on the border came during a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee on July 24. The hearing was entitled, “Boots at the Border: Examining the National Guard Deployment to the Southwest Border.”
In his testimony, National Guard Major General John F. Nichols said he expects that Reapers would be deployed to the border. “I think there will be a time in the future for the Reapers to be flying,” General Nichols said. “I know that California has mentioned that; I think Arizona, as well. So we see that as a possible [sic] in the future.”
Nichols currently serves as the National Guard’s adjutant general of Texas. He has an extensive background in piloting fighter planes, having previously served as Assistant Adjutant General - Air, Texas National Guard.
In April, President Trump signed a memorandum deploying National Guard troops along the US-Mexico border, citing a “crisis” of “lawlessness” there. Shortly thereafter, Defense Secretary James Mattis authorized up to 4,000 National Guard troops to be deployed to the border.
Major General Michael T. McGuire, the National Guard’s adjutant general of Arizona, confirmed to the committee that the Guard is seeking Reapers. Asked by Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ) whether they’re engaged in talks to acquire the Reapers, McGuire replied, “We have been looking for that.”
McGuire also alluded to the benefits that not just the Reaper would confer on patrolling the border, but also Apache attack helicopters.
“While we are using RC-26 and Lakota, there are other rotary wing and remotely piloted systems like MQ-9 and Apache that could be used in night, low-visibility to help support our Customs and Border Patrol agents out of the normal daytime cycle,” said General McGuire.
A Border Patrol official, Rodolfo Karisch, chief of the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, was also present at the hearing. Karisch’s remarks shed light on the nature of the assistance that the National Guard has been providing the Border Patrol.
“Guard right now is assisting us on various fronts: on the aviations side, operations, logistics, and administrative support that they’re giving us,” said Karisch. “Critical to the job that they’re doing for us right now is operating cameras. They’re acting as our eyes and ears, giving us greater situational awareness of that border.”
Later, when Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) pressed Karisch to specify the nature of the Border Patrol’s work with the Guard, he emphasized their role in intelligence analysis and surveillance.
“Intelligence analysis...working in dispatch centers, but specifically the camera rooms; that’s probably where we have the greatest concentration of Guard personnel right now,” Karisch said.
General Nichols praised the border deployment for the opportunity it gave National Guard personnel “to practice some of their military skills.”
But the hearing was not absent criticism for the National Guard border deployment .
At one point Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) grilled Karisch on what criteria would have to be met in order to end the deployment of the National Guard to the border.
“[The Trump administration] mentioned something to the effect that they would opt to end the deployment of the National Guard to US-Mexico border when, I quote, ‘Our nation’s borders are secure,’” Correa said. “Any thought what definition of ‘our nation’s borders would be secure’ to end the deployment of the national guard?”
Karisch did not provide such a definition.
Later, when Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) posed a similar question—“What does ‘Mission Accomplished’ look like?”—it was met with complete silence.
Politicians aren’t the only ones critical of the National Guard’s border deployment. The head of the national Border Patrol union, Brandon Judd, told the LA Times that border agents have “seen no benefit” in the deployment. Judd went as far as calling the deployment “a colossal waste of resources.”
The LA Times report quoted several active Border Patrol agents as being critical of the Guard deployment.
The federal government has been critical in the past of the use of drones to patrol the borders. An audit conducted by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, released in 2015, found that ground-based sensors and radar towers were far more cost-effective for border monitoring than drones.
Both General Nichols and General McGuire stressed that the decision to deploy Reapers was ultimately up to the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security.
Contacted by TYT for comment, a spokerson for the US Air Force, Major Malinda Singleton, denied having any knowledge of plans to deploy the Reaper to the Southern border.
Neither the Department of Homeland Security nor the US Army responded to requests for comment.