HARLINGEN, TX - MAY 21: Border Patrol officers meet near a border fence and security camera tower near the U.S.-Mexico border on May 21, 2013 near Harlingen, Texas. The area, popular with tourists as well as wildlife, is also attractive to drug smugglers bringing their product north from Mexico into the United States. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)2013 Getty Images
The nation's federal border protection agency announced this week it will begin using more military-owned equipment for surveillance along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.
The new equipment, set up at three locations, will include large balloon-like devices called “aerostats” that contain sensor equipment for viewing activity along the border. The sensor equipment is similar to what the Border Patrol already uses but will give the agency a greater viewing area so they can track drug traffickers and undocumented immigrants crossing the U.S.’s southern border.
The announcement of the border balloons comes on top of recent announcements by CBP officials that they will be stepping border security and their monitoring tactics.
A July report obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit revealed the agency has considered adding weapons to its Predator drones that currently serve as the agency's eyes in the sky on the lookout for undocumented immigrants and drug trafficking coming across the border.
A section of the heavily redacted 107-page report that deals with the equipment mounted on the drones states that “Additional payload upgrades could include expendables or non-lethal weapons designed to immobilize [targets of interest].”
The federal border agency downplayed the report, saying it has no plans as of now to arm its drones, adding that current missions focus solely on surveillance and reporting illegal activity.
"CBP has no plans to arm its unmanned aircraft systems with non-lethal weapons or weapons of any kind," the agency said in a statement to Fox News Latino. "CBP’s unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) support CBP’s border security mission and provide an important surveillance and reconnaissance capability for interdiction agents on the ground and on the waterways."
The use of drones along the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico began several years ago. CBP currently has eight Predators in the skies along the northern and southern borders with an additional two drones patrolling the Caribbean.
The drones don't currently have weapons, just high-tech cameras used only for surveillance purposes. But critics of the use of drones for border security have used agency statistics to show the machines are not cost-effective because they lead to a relatively small number of migrant arrests and drug seizures.
Whether or not the government is seriously considering arming drones, some analysts questioned the motive for such a move. There may be some logic to it, analysts said, but it surely would come loaded with controversy.
“It seems pretty awful, the idea of armed drones on the border,” said Christopher Wilson, an associate at the Washington-based think tank the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“On the other hand, the Border Patrol is an armed agency and there have been a number of incidents of violence between agents and people along the border, so non-lethal weapons might not be such a bad idea," Wilson added.