Brian Bennett, Los Angeles Times, April 3, 2013
A sophisticated airborne radar system developed to track Taliban fighters planting roadside bombs in Afghanistan has found a new use along the U.S. border with Mexico, where it has revealed gaps in security.
Operated from a Predator surveillance drone, the radar system has collected evidence that Border Patrol agents apprehended fewer than half of the foreign migrants and smugglers who had illegally crossed into a 150-square-mile stretch of southern Arizona.
The number of “gotaways,” as the Border Patrol calls those who escape apprehension, is both more precise and higher than official estimates.
According to internal reports, Border Patrol agents used the airborne radar to help find and detain 1,874 people in the Sonora Desert between Oct. 1 and Jan. 17. But the radar system spotted an additional 1,962 people in the same area who evaded arrest and disappeared into the United States.
In contrast, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, estimated in January that the Border Patrol had caught 64% of those who illegally crossed into the Tucson sector in 2011.
Michael Friel, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said the Vader remained in a “preliminary testing phase.” He also said the method used in the agency’s internal reports to compare apprehensions to arrests was flawed because it didn’t include people who were detained after the airborne radar had left the area.
The radar is sharp enough to detect and track individuals on foot from a Predator five miles overhead. It uses a synthetic aperture radar to collect high-contrast black-and-white images and to follow scores of moving targets in real time. The processed signals are transmitted from the drone to a ground station, where the figures are displayed as moving dots on a detailed map.