Army as Border Patrol

AP’s John Milburn examines the use of active duty U.S. Army forces to help patrol our border with Mexico. I was interviewed for the piece to provide reaction to the argument that such use would help “train” the military.

By providing extra eyes and ears for agents, helicopter crews from Fort Riley and Fort Carson, Colo., were learning to operate in terrain close to what they will find in Iraq this summer. “They learned how to do things the right way and do it faster every day,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Stephen Waller of the Combat Aviation Brigade’s 1-6 Cavalry, which includes soldiers from both the Kansas and Colorado posts. “And you do it without bullets flying overhead. You can correct it without someone getting killed.”

But with U.S. forces stretched across battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, some question whether the military should be involved in such missions. “Surely, the Army has enough to do without getting into that business,” said James Joyner, a former Army officer and military analyst in Washington. “And it’s not like our helicopter assets aren’t getting a workout, either.”

Joyner said the help that active-duty troops provide along the border should come from the civilian Department of Homeland Security personnel and the National Guard.

Commanders volunteer their units for the border missions, which are organized by Joint Task Force North, based at Fort Bliss, Texas. Most last only a few weeks, but some last months.

Task force spokesman Armando Carrasco said the active-duty troops bulk up law enforcement’s presence, especially at night. And the task force touts the missions as training opportunities, including access to ranges where units can fire missiles. “These mission sets allow the military units to train in terrain and geographic locations and climatic conditions that would be similar to where they may be deploying in the future,” said Xavier Rios of the Customs and Border Protection Agency.

One goal of the border training was to teach disparate elements — the soldiers from Colorado and Kansas were joined by other parts of the 1st Infantry Division’s Combat Aviation Brigade — how to work together before they’re in a war zone. And although the 1-6 Cavalry’s border mission was scheduled before the helicopter crews knew they would be going to Iraq, Lt. Col. John Thompson, commander of the 1-6 Cavalry, said the missions offer training that his troops need regardless of where they might be deployed.

Still, Maj. Gen. Carter Ham, the 1st Infantry Division’s commander, acknowledged there was “real concern” about the border mission taking soldiers away from training on their home posts — and away from their families — just before they face spending up to a year in Iraq. “We determined that the training value that would be gained was worth the time away from home station,” Ham said.


Military units have supported missions along the U.S.-Mexico border since 1989, starting with efforts to stop narcotics trafficking and expanding to include efforts to stop terrorist and illegal immigrants. In 18 years, nearly 6,000 deployments have been completed.

The military units use tactics also needed to fight insurgents in Iraq. But instead of looking for insurgents and roadside bombs, they scan for illegal immigrants and smugglers of drugs, weapons or people. They forward their information to law enforcement, because federal law prohibits active-duty soldiers from making arrests or monitoring individuals or organizations on U.S. soil. That makes the mission challenging, said Thompson, “but worth it, very similar to what we’re going to do in Iraq.”

Still, Joyner said, it’s bad for the military to be involved in law enforcement and border operations. His preferred model is Operation Jump Start, President Bush’s effort to put 6,000 National Guard troops on the border to help law enforcement as a temporary fix until the Border Patrol can hire enough new agents. “The National Guard, in their role as state militias, could be used as an occasional augmentation force, but the active Army operates under different rules of engagement,” Joyner said.

My concerns go beyond operations tempo to the issue of politicizing the military by using them in civilian law enforcement. That’s a dangerous path, although we’ve likely got enough institutional safeguards to prevent going too overboard.

I must admit that I find it interesting that so many senior officers see this as a training opportunity. Whether they are gung ho supporters of the mission or merely being good soldiers putting their best face on carrying out their orders is hard to say.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, Published Elsewhere, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Getting the troops out of the barracks and into the field is part of training. Being able to give them a mission that is real I suspect helps make the training more effective. How well the coordinate as a team, being able to detect people at night who are actively trying to evade them. All of this makes sense to me. If this was the only training, I would agree. But making this a part of a couple of weeks seems reasonable to me. If I knew my unit was going to be on the Iranian or Syrian border, I would insist on this sort of training. If I was going to be stationed in Baghdad, not so much.

    I guess to know, we would need first understand the other training options and see what sort of effectiveness there has been by units who uses this as a training point vs others. Remember, units spend a lot of time, for most units as much or more, out of Iraq/Afghanistan than they spend in it.

  2. James Joyner says:

    In some sense, everything is training. And I can see where some of these missions are mutually reinforcing.

    I’m more concerned with the political implications of this than the impact on opstempo, but I do think the latter is worrisome. Flying border patrol missions puts additional strain on both the troops and their equipment.

  3. I agree that the military vs civil line is a bit trickier. The fact that they are deployed on our countries border should ease this. We have been a very fortunate country in that for the most part our borders have been relatively peaceful. Certainly compared to Europe, they have been down right sedate.

    Consider Pershing on the border about 100 years ago. We have been here before, so there should be some reasonable sign posts.

    As to wear and tear on the equipment, again, what is the alternatives. If the helicopter is going to just sit there, then I would worry about the pilots training. Think about a helicopter pilot who is going to patrol the Iranian border. Can you really say that this sort of training is just “everything is training”? Whatever nighttime flying he would be doing to train for Iran, is this really so far different? And having a bunch of motivated evaders using human cunning to surprise you is hard to reproduce in a “controlled” training environment.

    Again, I am willing to be convinced that this is “additional strain”, but on the face of it this seems reasonable. Much more information would be needed to say it doesn’t make sense.

    Or to put it another way, the command authority has made this an option for troop training. There are plausible real world correlation between the border search and their potential deployment. So second guessing with out facts is beneficial how?

  4. Wayne says:

    Training trade offs are usually hard to decide on. If you increase in one area another may get neglected. It depends on what the future holds for a unit. Even with known deployment overseas, the future is unpredictable. However, I can see very good opportunities for training by pulling these border security missions. The devil of course is in the details.

    Border security is in part a law enforcement issue but also is very much a national security issue. One in which we have neglected for decades. It is hypocritical of us to ask Iraq to secure its borders when we don’t secure ours. A large number of country use their military to help secure their borders including Mexico. Where did we in the US get the idea that border security is only a civilian law enforcement function is beyond me?

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    There’s a practical political reality that needs to be acknowledged in this discussion: historically, we’ve tended to pile practically everything into Defense from building highways to educating our children. We shouldn’t be too surprised if the strategy for improving border enforcement lies through Defense, too.

  6. Dave Schuler,

    While you can certainly raise a good debate about the uses of the corps of engineers and DARPA funds, securing the borders is ‘historically’ one of the key roles for the military.

  7. floyd says:

    When a nation is in the middle of an intentional and organized invasion by a foreign power, it is wholly appropriate to use military power to repell those forces.