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Kerry Williamson, CanWest News Service; Calgary Herald
Published: Tuesday, October 17, 2006

GREAT FALLS, Mont. - Blackhawk helicopters and interceptor jets have begun patrolling Montana airspace along the U.S.-Canada border, and American officials say unmanned drones could be deployed as early as next year.

But the U.S. is playing down the new security measure, claiming it has little to do with Canadians but more to do with the threat of terrorists using Canada as a staging point for attacks in America.

And they say that as long as the terrorist threat exists, border security will continue to be a high priority.

On Monday, the U.S Department of Homeland Security officially opened its Customs and Border Protection air facility in Great Falls, Mont. - the third of five air wings to be set up along the Canada-U.S. border.

Equipped with two Blackhawk helicopters, two Citation jet interceptors and one Pilatus surveillance plane, the detachment is responsible for 800 kilometres of land border with Canada. Similar facilities are up and running in Bellingham, Wash., and Plattsburg, N.Y. Two more are planned, in Detroit and Grand Forks, N.D.

"You have to have some visibility of physical support, and I think our enemies have to understand that, too,'' said Senator Conrad Burns, one of Montana's two Republican senators. "We have real eyes, real ears, in our effort to protect the integrity of our border.''

The air wing, which employs 52 people, will fight drug smuggling, human trafficking and gun running, and could also help in rescues and natural disasters on both sides of the border.

However, their top priority is fighting terrorism, and in particular, the threat of terrorists coming illegally into the U.S. from Canada.

"We would be concerned with somebody coming through Canada and crossing the border undetected with a weapon of mass destruction,'' said Customs and Border Patrol Air and Marine assistant commissioner Michael Kostelnik.

The opening of the air branch comes as debate swirls over security of the U.S. border. Homeland Security recently revealed plans to build a "virtual fence'' along sections of the northern and southern borders, using sensors, infrared cameras, watchtowers and unmanned aircraft.

The fence could eventually stretch across America's entire border with Canada.

The Mexican border is clearly the priority - more than one million illegal immigrants are caught sneaking across into the U.S. every year.

But focus is also clearly on America's northern border. The U.S. House of Representatives voted last month to resurrect legislation that could involve security fencing along the Canada-U.S. border.

Kostelnik said Canadians should not be concerned at the increased security.

"We are not militarizing the country. The borders have totally different histories, totally different concerns and issues, and totally different relationships,'' he said.

Canadian border officials attended Monday's air branch opening. They expect to be involved in operations conducted by the Great Falls detachment.

Sgt. Doug Dupin is a Lethbridge-based RCMP inspector in charge of IBET - the International Border Enforcement Team. He is confident the new air branch will help secure the border, on both sides.

"It's not only keeping their border safe, it's keeping our border safe,'' he said. "It works both ways. We set up our assets and they set up theirs, and we both make use of them.''