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McCain demands DHS deploy military drones to patrol border

U.S. Sen. John McCain wants military drones, flown during Air Force training missions in Arizona, to begin patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border.

In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, McCain demanded that DHS ask the Pentagon for support to "combat drug trafficking and secure the U.S.-Mexico border." 

McCain's letter came after the Republican senator visited Ft. Huachuca army base in Sierra Vista, where he said he watched Army pilots flying drones along the border during training missions. 

Ft. Huachuca is home to the 2-13th Aviation Regiment, which trains military personnel to maintain and fly four types of unmanned aircraft, commonly known as drones. This includes two small surveillance drones, the RQ-5 Hunter and the RQ-7 Shadow, and the larger MQ-1 Gray Eagle, an upgraded version of the Predator drone originally used in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Unlike the Predator and its larger cousin, the Reaper, the drones flown by the training squadron are not designed to carry weapons. 

However, "none of the training missions are being coordinated with the Department of Homeland Security to surveil the border for drug trafficking activities," McCain said. 

In the letter, McCain demanded that Johnson request support from the Pentagon and "take full advantage of the department's air assets to secure the border and combat illicit drug trafficking." 

Already U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Air and Marine flies four drones from Libby Airfield inside Ft. Huachuca's grounds. 

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Along with a complement of infrared sensors and television cameras, CBP's drones can carry VADER, or Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar, a system designed by the Department of Defense to detect vehicles and people walking in the desert.

McCain's demand comes even as a helicopter crew with Alabama National Guard have begun to patrol the border, replacing a crew from New York that operated from an airfield in Marana for six months ending in March. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

One of the drones (known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems) flown by U.S. Customs and Border Protection from Libby Airfield near Sierra Vista.