WINNIPEG - Famed for prowling the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, a remote-control Predator aircraft took flight over the wheat fields of South Dakota yesterday, the first in a network of surveillance drones that could soon patrol the American border with Canada from Maine to Washington state.
While security-conscious politicians applauded the start of Predator flight operations along the largely unmonitored northern border, some border experts regard it as a mere public-relations exercise.
"I think this has far more to do with the theatre of security than with dealing seriously about issues surrounding the northern border," said border security expert Ben Muller, a political science professor at Simon Fraser University.
For now, the South Dakota drone will be confined to a 370-kilometre stretch along the Manitoba border to test how it holds up to Prairie winters. By 2010, however, U.S. border officials hope to see the $10.5-million unmanned aircraft monitoring both sides of the B.C. border during the Winter Olympics.
"If the RCMP or Canadian government believes they can make use of the aircraft for support during the Olympics, we will be more than willing to provide it," said Juan Munoz-Torres, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Already the agency has established five bases to act as launch sites for the drones in Bellingham, Wash., Great Falls, Mont., Grand Forks, N.D., Detroit and Plattsburgh, N.Y.
The plan, called the Northern Border Air Wing, is a holdover from the 9/11 Commission Report, which recommended that the United States shore up security along borders with Mexico and Canada.
"It seems a palliative measure," said Michael Kergin, chairman of the Canadian International Council working group on border issues and a former ambassador to the United States, "but it does provide them with some assurances."
Five Predator drones currently patrol the Mexican border, and border officials give the aircraft partial credit for stopping more than 4,000 illegal immigrants and 8,000 kilograms of marijuana from crossing the southern boundary.
With a range of 5,900 kilometres and a maximum speed of more than 450 km/h, a single Predator will be capable of scouring a vast portion of the 9,000-km Canada-U.S. border. Sensors fastened to the plane's belly will take both infrared and HD video of anything within a 40-km radius.
Flight restrictions prevent the drone from flying any closer than 16 km to the Canadian border. That still leaves a roughly 24-km swath of Canadian borderland open to U.S. government eyes.
"There is no reason for Canadians to be concerned about this," Mr. Munoz-Torres said. "This is a military weapon adopted for civilian purposes."
But that relationship to bomb-ready military hardware is too close for some, who say the Predator challenges the border's distinction as the longest undefended border in the world.
"Post-9/11, there has been a significant militarization of the border," Dr. Muller said. "This certainly fits in with that."
More than a public-safety measure, the drone buzzing 20,000 feet over the prairies represents the clout of certain American political constituencies, Dr. Muller says.
"There has been a lot political pressure suggesting that these technological solutions will fix the security problem," he said. "They have this idea that if it's watched, we're all safer, but I'm very skeptical. They are the same people rolling out over and over again these examples that supposedly prove Canada is a terrorist hotbed."
Senators Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota have applied much of that political pressure.
Both have been instrumental in attracting federal funding for the Northern Border Air Wing by highlighting drug-trafficking and terrorism problems along the northern border.
"It is vital to America's security that we protect our borders, particularly the northern border," said Mr. Conrad upon the drone's arrival in Grand Forks. "The Grand Forks Air Branch plays an essential role in helping shut the door on terrorists who want to sneak across remote border points to strike on U.S. soil."
Their efforts to draw political attention to northern border security issues may eventually result in 20 unmanned air vehicles, or UAVs, being housed at the Grand Forks base.
And plans are under way to create an unmanned aircraft program at the University of North Dakota.
For the most part, the RCMP is on board with the U.S plan to secure the border using drones. Some officers even attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Grand Forks on Sunday.
The plan fits a larger North American strategy to scrutinize the border without bogging down crossing times.
"It's a technology that's not intrusive and is relatively user-friendly," Mr. Kergin said. "I would argue that it's a useful tool."