On Wednesday, the Office of Air and Marine at Customs and Border Protection (CBP) held an open house in a government hangar at Reagan National Airport to show off its latest aircraft – the Multi-Role Enforcement Aircraft (MREA). It was a quite spectacular. The modified twin engine Beechcraft is loaded with the most up-to-date sensing packages – cameras, radars, and other sophisticated detection and analysis systems that should make the “bad guys” think twice about expecting to evade detection.
General Michael Kostelnik, OAM’s leader, was joined at the open house by current CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin, Office of Field Operations head, Tom Winkowski and a host of CBP officials. Even former-CBP Commissioner Ralph Basham showed up to take a gander at the newest aircraft in the AMO fleet, as well as looking at a recently modified CBP Huey helicopter and a “tricked out” Citation jet. But it was the MREA that garnered the most attention and deservedly so.
The airplane, which was modified by the Sierra Nevada Corporation at its facility near Hagerstown, Maryland, has the ability to stay in the air for up to 6 hours, can fly at an altitude of 35,000 feet and is currently configured so that it can be operated by fewer than 4 people – including the ground station operator who would receive signals from the aircraft sensors. And the initial sensor package can be reconfigured as new technology comes online or as budgets permit the addition of more detection and analysis systems.
What struck me about the new MREA is how much more cost-effective capability it brings than the unmanned Predator UAV, which can require as many as three times the crew as the MREA and which requires special FAA clearances to operate with lesser capabilities, according to open source informational sources. After seeing the new MREA up close, I am at a loss to understand why Congress would continue to fund the acquisition of even one more Predator for use by CBP.
The MREA, as well as the other manned air platforms operated by CBP AMO, provide an impressive array of aerial assets that fit the CBP mission far better than a Predator, which is far more suited for performance in a theatre of war, where manned airplane operation carries significantly higher risk than we have seen along the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada. Last time I checked, it was not the policy of the United States to shoot precision missiles from unmanned aircraft into the territory of our northern or southern neighbors. The Predator is well suited for use in high-threat and bad terrain areas, such as Afghanistan. It is out of place, in my opinion, in the CBP fleet, unlike the MREA which provides enhanced capabilities at a relatively reasonable cost. OAM’s desire to purchase one UAV per year ought to be curtailed.
Several other MREAs are in line to join the one on display this week, and when the first airplane is in service in a few weeks (CBP will not say publicly where it is being deployed initially), CBP and Border Patrol officers will have far more useful technological assistance than at any time in their history.
The issue is not now, nor has it ever been, about CBP fielding new “gee-whiz” technology. It has been, and always should be, about technology that is cost-effective for the mission it has been given. The MREA fits the CBP mission well. General Kostelnik and Commissioner Bersin have reason to be proud of the newest aircraft in their fleet. Congress should take notice and shift funding from the acquisition of more Predators to adding more aircraft like the MREA to CBP’s fleet. It is simply a more suitable aircraft.