Documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation from the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Patrol indicate that the agency is close to finalizing payload standards for its drone aircraft. Among the things the CBP might want to use in its unmanned aircraft: "non-lethal weapons designed to immobilize" targets.

In 2009, the agency announced that it had acquired its sixth Predator drone, stationed at an Army Airfield in Arizona. The agency trumpeted its successes:

Since 2004, CBP unmanned aircraft have flown more than 3,000 hours, directly contributing to 4,766 arrests and the seizure of 22,823 pounds of marijuana in support of the Department of Homeland Security's border security mission.

A fact sheet provided by the agency notes the current capabilities of the aircraft, including electro-optical/infrared sensors and "Surface Search Radar/Ground Moving Target Indicator." The specific drone rolled out in 2009 was loaded with "the Raytheon MTS-B Multi-Spectral Targeting System (with electro-optical, infrared, laser designation, and laser illumination capabilities) and Synthetic Aperture Radar." Raytheon describes the capabilities of the MTS-B: "provides long-range surveillance, high-altitude target acquisition, tracking, rangefinding, and laser designation for the HELLFIRE missile and for all tri-service and NATO laser-guided munitions." You can see the surveillance systems at work in this video, shot at the Mexican border; obviously, the CBP drones aren't HELLFIRE equipped.

But they may soon have weapons. The 2010 document released to the EFF under the Freedom of Information Act, titled "Concept of Operations for CBP’s Predator B Unmanned Aircraft System," suggests that the FAA is mandating standards affecting the devices' Communication, Navigation, Surveillance / Air Traffic Management (CNS/ATM) equipment, which could require upgrades. In a section titled "Far-Term CONOPS" (Concept of Operations), the document outlines future possible enhancements (emphasis added).

Mission sensor upgrades could include improving SAR point target resolution to well below one foot, a simultaneous SAR-GMTIIMMTI mode and advanced ATR/ATC algorithms. Visual and IR band sensors will be updated with newer generation arrays. The addition of an Electronic Support Measures suite with specific emitter identification will increase mission effectiveness by enabling the UAS to independently perform the SDCIP Identification task. Additional payload upgrades could include expendables or non-lethal weapons designed to immobilize TOIs.

Decoding the abbreviations:

  • SAR: Synthetic Aperture Radar
  • SAR-GMTIIMMTI: GMTI is ground moving target indication, as above; MMTI, micro-motion target indication
  • ATR/ATC: Automatic Target Recognition/Automatic Target Correlation
  • UAS: Unmanned Aircraft System
  • SDCIP: Surveillance, Detection, Classification, Identification, and Prosecution

And, of course, TOI: Targets of Interest. Elsewhere in the document this term is loosely defined: "personnel and conveyances possibly involved in illegal activity, a developing storm system, etc."

The prospect, then, is this. Predator aircraft patrolling the Mexican (and Canadian) border equipped with "non-lethal" weapons and advanced targeting systems. The EFF notes in its blog post:

However, this is the first we’ve heard of any federal agency proposing using weapons on drones flown domestically. That CBP has, without broader public discussion, considered this step—combined with the fact that the agency (with Congress’ blessing, if the immigration bill is approved (pdf, p. 92)) is planning to sharply increase the number of drones it flies—should cause serious concern for Americans.

(We assessed the effectiveness of the CBP's recent expansion of its resources on the border last month. There hasn't been a correlation between increased resources and more apprehensions.)

Earlier this year, Attorney General Eric Holder replied to a question from Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. “Does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on an American soil?" the letter asked, responding with a terse "no." Even if the CBP's full slate of upgrades to its drones go into effect — which there's no indication that they have — that question still holds true. The CBP would have a weaponized drone it could use to incapacitate a person that the agency persumably considers a criminal and flight risk. Assuming that, unlike what can happen with other non-lethal weapons, the drones actually do merely incapacitate the targets of interest.

As Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney for the EFF, told The Atlantic Wire by phone Tuesday afternoon, it's not just the CBP that uses these drones. The FOIA request stems from a lawsuit filed by Lynch after a 2011 Los Angeles Times article that indicated the agency was sharing its aircraft with other agencies at all level of government. Among the ones she identified off the top of her head: the Coast Guard, the FBI, the U.S. Marshalls, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the Texas Department of Public Safety. The drone's surveillance capability "is what we're actually focused on," Lynch said, but the possibility of using weapons stood out. "This is the first I've seen any mention of any plans to weaponize any drones that fly domestically," she said. "I haven't seen this anywhere else."

We have reached out to the Department of Homeland Security for a response and will update this post when possible.

Update, Thursday: Customs and Border Patrol sent the following statement:

CBP has no plans to arm its unmanned aircraft systems with non-lethal weapons or weapons of any kind. CBP’s unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) support CBP’s border security mission and provide an important surveillance and reconnaissance capability for interdiction agents on the ground and on the waterways. Current UAS were designed with the ability to add new surveillance capabilities, accommodate technological developments, and ensure that our systems are equipped with the most advanced resources available.

Photo: Still from a YouTube video featuring a report from the CBC.