The New York Army National Guard will send one of its two new UH-72 Lakota light utility helicopters-and an accompanying three-member aircrew from its Latham operations center to the Texas/Mexico border next week. Capital Region Bureau Chief Dave Lucas reports.
The aircraft and crew deploy next week to Laredo, Texas where they'll serve as the electronic eyes and ears of the United States Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agencies.
The New York Army National Guard deployment is part of Operation River Watch II, a National Guard effort which employs 300 troops and Guard aircraft to monitor the Rio Grande River along the Texas/ Mexico border.
The New Yorkers will fly aerial reconnaissance missions along the border, keeping watch for illicit drug and human trafficking as well as illegal immigrants. The three man crew will be accompanied by a Customs and Border Patrol agent on all missions. The agent has the ability to make arrests if necessary and also knows the area the crew will be patrolling.
With infrared capabilities and a high-powered searchlight, the Lakota can easily track people on the ground and coordinate with Border Patrol agents. The skills the aircrew learn on the border-- working with law enforcement and conducting air search operations-- can be employed in New York during disaster response missions.
Operation Riverwatch II is part of a larger National Guard mission known as Operation Phalanx which kicked off in 2010 when 1,200 Guard Soldiers and Airmen were deployed to assist in border security. While National Guard elements across the country provided troops, the mission was paid for by federal dollars since it was initiative by President Barack Obama.
These troops supported the Border Patrol by manning watchtowers and monitoring closed circuit television screens.
In March of 2012, the mission was downsized from an effort involving National Guard Soldiers on the ground at fixed locations, to aerial patrols along the border, with some National Guard security and intelligence analysts assisting federal law enforcement.
That mission was originally due to run through 2012 but was extended through 2013 at a cost of the Department of Defense of $60 million.
The New York National Guard Soldiers' pay and other costs will be funded by the federal government but the Soldiers will come under the command of the Governor of Texas when they deploy.
According to Texas officials the shift to aerial reconnaissance from fixed posts on the ground as been very effective. Between March 2012 and May 2012 the new operation resulted in 6,984 apprehensions, while the fixed post mission netted just 4,002 apprehensions 30 months.
This is not the first time New York National Guard troops have deployed to the border with Mexico. In 2006-2008 more than 1,000 New York National Guard Soldiers deployed to the boarder as part of Operation Jump Start.
This mission was designed to help the Border Patrol control the border while new officers were recruited and trained. The New York Army National Guard sent the 750 Soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 108th Infantry to southern Arizona in support of that mission.