PHOENIX — Most of the National Guard soldiers now along the border will be gone by the end of March.
But some replacements are coming.
In a joint announcement Tuesday, the departments of defense and homeland security said they will eliminate the ground-based surveillance identification teams that have been staffed by 1,200 soldiers for more than a year, including more than 400 in Arizona alone. Paul Stockton, an assistant defense secretary in charge of homeland security issues, said that the Border Patrol has been able to build up its own capacity in that area.
What the agency is lacking, though, is air support. And that, said David Aguilar, deputy commissioner of Customs and Border Patrol, is what will come next.
“So we’re basically going from boots on the ground to boots in the air, giving us enhanced capabilities from the aerial platforms,’’ he said.
Stockton said he anticipates the use of two types of “sophisticated’’ helicopters, both equipped with forward-looking infrared radar and other equipment. He said that means being able to look “over the horizon, far beyond the range of binoculars’’ used by soldiers in fixed ground postiions.
What it also means, he said, is more flexibility, being able to send the aircraft quickly where they are needed, where people are likely to be crossing.
“It provides for an adaptability and a flexibility, far above what’s provided by fixed entry-identification teams,’’ Stockton said.
What is unclear, though, is exactly where the aircraft will be deployed.
“What we’ll end up doing is identifying, with the requirements that we have, based on the capabilities that are available ... those areas of greatest risk,’’ said Border Patrol Chief Mike Fisher.
He said at this point the means Arizona and south Texas.
“That’s not at the exclusion of everything else, necessarily,’’ he said. “We will work with Department of Defense planners in trying to script out what is going to transition over the next few months.’’
Stockton said he cannot say which Guard units from which states will be providing that aerial support.
He said the next step is to try to match the capabilities of each unit with what is needed.
Local Guard officials said they do not yet have details about their new role.
“Currently, the Arizona National Guard is in the planning stages with the National Guard Bureau for the changes to the federal mission’s requirement into the new year,’’ said Capt. Valentine Castillo.
What is clear is that the number of soldiers involved all along the southwest border will drop sharply. Stockton pegged the new figure, when fully deployed next year, at fewer than 300.
“The exact number of personnel, the capabilities of what the capabilities are of what they will be providing ... and where they are positioned, which particular states they will be located in, all of that is the focus of intense planning right now,’’ he said.
Stockton said, though, that the real decision ultimately will be made by Customs and Border Patrol because that agency knows the gaps in its capabilities.
The move also will cost the federal government a lot less. The price tag for this deployment is estimated at $60 million for the entire calendar year. Homeland security officials had said the ground deployment has run about $10 million a month.
Tuesday’s announcement comes even though there has been criticism that the federal government has not achieved “operational control’’ of the border as has been mandated by Congress. But Aguilar said that ignores what has been accomplished. He said illegal immigration is down to the lowest level in 17 years.
In Arizona alone, he said, there were 129,000 apprehensions of those crossing the border illegally in the last federal budget year, down 41 percent from the prior year.
He said there are more than 17,400 Border Patrol officers on the Southwest border, the highest level. And Aguilar said crime rates in border cities have fallen sharply.
“Do we have work to do? Absolutely,’’ he continued. Aguilar said that is why the Department of Defense is “stepping up to the plate’’ to help get to an even higher level of border security.
Aguilar said the reduction in border crossers has also enabled his agency to focus more on going after drug smugglers.