The California National Guard, seeking to bolster its role in drug interdiction efforts, outlined plans Tuesday for the deployment of almost three dozen military helicopters and other aircraft along the Mexican border in San Diego.
The aircraft--which would be based at a new facility at Brown Field, less than a mile from the international boundary--would be used to identify and track drug-ferrying aircraft, although arrests would be made by civilian agencies such as the U.S. Customs Service because U.S. law limits military involvement in civilian law enforcement.
The plan, if approved by federal officials, would appear to be the most concentrated use of U.S. military might ever in a drug-combatting effort along the border. The Guard units would be unarmed and would not be deployed against the movement of illegal aliens, officials said.
Officials have periodically called for the deployment of U.S. troops and military materiel along the border, both to deter illegal immigration and drug traffic, but the Pentagon’s involvement to date has been largely limited to the sharing of radar, intelligence data and some equipment in a drug-fighting capacity. Many military officials have been wary of increased involvement. But California National Guard authorities seem eager to heighten their presence, although they stress their need for modernized radar and aircraft.
“Currently, we’re still working with Vietnam-era equipment,” said Brigadier General Daniel L. Brennan, assistant adjutant general of the California National Guard. “We need more up-to-date technology.”
Col. Ronald A. Kludt, chief of emergency plans and operations for the California National Guard, added: “Our position all along has been that the border should have priority in the type of equipment.”
However, observers said the National Guard plan may face an uphill battle for approval in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, because of budgetary concerns and military hesitancy. Congress would have to appropriate new monies or reassign existing funds to pay for the estimated $30 million in initial construction and start-up costs.
Military Voices Concern
U.S. military officials have expressed fears that an increased commitment to the drug battle could result in a lessening of defense preparedness and a blurring of military and civilian roles. In addition, a congressional aide working on the project noted that the more than $400 million worth of aircraft would have to be reassigned from military deployment or from National Guard units in other states whose lawmakers might object.
“We do have to step on some toes to do this,” said Dixon Arnett, legislative director for Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), a supporter of the National Guard plan.
The proposal is currently “in channels” at the National Guard Bureau, which coordinates Guard activity nationwide, said Major Robert Dunlap, a spokesman in Washington. More definitive word on the plan should be forthcoming in several months, Arnett said.
The new equipment is needed, proponents maintain, because Guard aircraft in California lack the sophisticated radar and other detection gear needed to track the drug-trafficking planes that frequently pierce the border, often under the cover of darkness.
The proposed Guard units would work in conjunction with U.S. Customs and other civilian law enforcement agencies.
On 40-Acre Site
The Guard is calling for the construction of an armory and helicopter maintenance facility on a 40-acre site at Brown Field, which is currently used largely for private and cargo aircraft. The Guard anticipates receiving the land free from the Navy. More than 200 guard personnel would staff the new facility.
At the site, the Guard would deploy 34 helicopters, including 18 Apache AH-64A attack aircraft, equipped with night vision devices, and four UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters. The Guard would also like to equip some existing Air National Guard C-130 aircraft with more sophisticated radar. Although concentrating on drug interdiction, the aircraft could also be called on for search and rescue operations and other tasks, officials said.
This would not be the Guard’s first experience along the border. In August, as many as 100 armed National Guard military police officers participated in a 20-day pilot program, assisting Customs personnel in the searching of commercial cargo in Texas and Arizona. The California proposal, however, involves a permanent Guard air base.