U.S. Navy

As the United States continues its protracted withdrawal from two foreign wars that have cost the country upwards of $6 trillion, a logistical question remains: What do we do with all the surplus military equipment?

Plan A: Hand it over to the newly liberated government, as U.S. did in 2011 when it transferred more $250 million in military equipment to the Iraqi government, according to the Huffington Post. But handing over weapons isn't always (read: almost never is) a good idea, as the U.S. has learned repeatedly throughout history—most recently when M1A1 Abrams tanks and Humvees donated to Iraq ended fell into the hands of ISIS.

That brings us to Plan B: Bring the stuff home and find new ways to use it, which is what's happening on the U.S.-Mexico border.

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Controlling the U.S.-Mexican border has becoming an increasingly high-tech endeavor. Despite Donald Trump's loud calls to build a giant wall as part of his medieval border security plan, the real trend in monitoring and controlling the Mexican border is already high-tech and high-flying.

Introducing “tactical aerostats” —tethered blimps that operate at altitudes of 500 to 5,000 feet and monitor ground activity through use of radars, infrared imaging and cameras.

Aerostats like this one are already being deployed along the Mexican border
U.S. Navy

Originally used in Iraq and Afghanistan to identify the location of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), the blimps are now being deployed in the Rio Grande Valley, a notorious corridor for drug-trafficking activities. Dave Pauling, a retired military senior executive from The Pentagon who now serves as a strategy advisor for the Operational Integration and Analysis Directory, says the use of these tactical aerostats has led to the seizure of more than 140 tons of illegal narcotics.

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“In general, technology innovation is something that has turned out to be a huge benefit to border security, and aerostats is one of them,” Pauling told me. “In the Rio Grande Valley, they were a game-changer. We found trails we didn’t know existed before. We were able to watch some things we didn’t know existed before. We were able to see some things that we weren’t aware of.”

But could this new surveillance technology infringe on the privacy of U.S. citizens who live along the border?

“This is strictly used for border security," Pauling said. "Do we look in people’s windows? No. We’re strictly looking at the border and what’s coming across the border.”

The U.S. government is using surveillance blimps to monitor the Mexican border, but insist they're not being used for domestic spying
U.S. Navy

In addition to the blimps, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) over the next few months will conduct a feasibility study about the use of small surveillance drones returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Pauling said the government is considering the possibility of deploying unarmed drones for similar surveillance efforts along certain areas of the border.

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Larger unmanned aircraft systems have already been deployed by the Office of Air and Marine. Pauling would not say where these larger drones operate, or what they're looking at. But the trend of deploying high-tech military-grade equipment to keep an eye on the border will apparently continue for as long as the drawdown in the Middle East provides surplus equipment.

The program is known as the “DoD Reuse Program,” which was established in 2012 to repurpose certain equipment used in Afghanistan and Iraq. The surplus military equipment is technically available to any U.S. law enforcement agency, but preference is given to border security, counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism activities.

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Since the program was established, 2,293 items have been identified—everything from night vision goggles to laser range finders to drones—and transferred to CBP agencies on our northern and southern borders. Of those items, 1,153 have been transferred to Border Patrol operations, 367 to existing Ports of Entry, 686 to Air and Marine operations, and 87 to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), according to Pauling.

Pauling said the total new market value of these items is estimated to be $122 million.

“The whole intent is to have an opportunity to reuse technology that has been paid for by tax money,” said Pauling. “It costs money to keep things that are excess.”

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Transferring the equipment to other federal agencies would mitigate the cost of keeping the equipment within DoD jurisdiction, but it can become a cost burden for others. Although the equipment itself is free for the taking, the costs associated with operating and maintaining the equipment are not.

In a written testimony of its 2016 fiscal year budget, the CBP, which receives more funding than any other organization within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), requested a funding increase that would take into account its partnership with the DoD as part of its Reuse Program. “The FY 2016 Budget Request begins to baseline these budget requirements by providing an increase to allow CBP to continue the acquisition and operation of DoD-provided systems…” the testimony stated.

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You could argue that the implementation of retrograde military equipment within border security operations is further proof of our increasingly militarized borders, where Border Patrol personnel have more than quadrupled in the past two decades. But Pauling insists it has been a game-changer for security on the southern border.