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More choppers, planes to patrol border as Guard pulls back

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The Defense Department will send more helicopters and airplanes to keep watch over the U.S.-Mexico border next year, as the number of National Guard troops working with the Border Patrol is reduced

Defense and the Department of Homeland Security jointly announced the program Tuesday. It is set to being in January, with the aircraft in place by March 1, a press release from the agencies said.

Using aircraft instead of Guard troops on the ground will give Border Patrol officers faster response times, increased ability to operate in rough terrain, and be a more visible deterrent, the release said:

The Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) today announced they will continue their critical partnership to further strengthen the already unprecedented levels of personnel, technology, and infrastructure along the Southwest border - representing the Administration's ongoing commitment to secure the border and facilitate legitimate trade and travel.

Since the summer of 2010, National Guard troops have acted as a critical support bridge while the Administration brought on new assets provided by the 2010 supplemental appropriation dedicated to effective border management and security. To date, Guardsmen stationed at the border supported civilian law enforcement on the ground through surveillance and criminal analysis.

With additional DHS civilian law enforcement assets, including a record number of U.S. Border Patrol agents, now in place, the DOD mission at the border will transition as part of a new strategic approach, adding a number of new multi-purpose aerial assets equipped with the latest surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. Additionally, DOD will provide air mobility support to the Border Patrol, allowing for faster response capabilities to a wide range of activities. The deployment of these new DOD technical assets, along with the additional DHS personnel on the ground, will enable DOD to reduce the number of National Guard troops at the Southwest border while enhancing border security.

The addition of aerial surveillance assets allows the National Guard to better support DHS by shifting surveillance from fixed sites to mobile ones that can quickly match the dynamic environment of the border - a significant enhancement in the ability to detect and deter illegal activity at the border - and provide greater support to the thousands of men and women involved in border security.

The transition to the new DOD/DHS strategic approach will begin in January, with additional aviation assets in place by March 1st. The aerial assets, which include both rotary and fixed-wing, will provide additional benefits including:

* Increased ability to operate in diverse landscapes: Operating environments differ from sector to sector and even within sectors. An aerial platform provides a much greater field of vision for surveillance in places with challenging terrain.

* Additional deterrence: The additional DOD aerial assets, which establish a greater visible presence from a distance to individuals attempting to cross the border illegally, coupled with the Border Patrol boots on the ground, will provide even greater border deterrence capabilities.

* A faster response time: The air assets will reduce enforcement response time, enabling Border Patrol officers to quickly move from one location to another on short notice to meet emerging threats of illegal activity or incursion. Aircraft also provide the ability to quickly reach areas in rugged terrain or areas without roads that were previously difficult to access.

* Flexible and adaptive surveillance as opposed to relying on fixed sites.

In FY 2011, U.S. Border Patrol apprehensions - a key indicator of illegal immigration - decreased to 340,252, down 53 percent since FY 2008 and one fifth of what they were at their peak in FY 2000. Since 2004, the size of the Border Patrol has doubled to 21,444.

About 1,200 National Guard troops have been stationed on the border since 2010, including 560 in Arizona.

Gov. Jan Brewer blasted the prospect of a troop drawn-down.

"The federal government should not consider reducing National Guard presence until local law enforcement officials and area residents indicate that the border has been adequately secured. Until then, talk of a drawdown – much less the reported removal of three-quarters of the National Guard force – is premature at best," Brewer said in a press release Tuesday afternoon.

"I am aware that the Obama administration plans to replace National Guard boots on the ground with aerial resources. Both are critical to a comprehensive border security plan, however, and the sacrifice of either is short-sighted," she said.

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Will Seberger/TucsonSentinel.com

A CBP helicopter flies along the border near San Diego in September. Tijuana, Mexico, is on the right.

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