A day after President Donald Trump authorized his administration to work with governors on deploying the National Guard to help secure the southern border, the Pentagon had few answers Thursday about how the call-up would take place or how many Guardsmen could be involved.
Officials did indicate that the troops would likely play mainly a support role as they've done in the past, but because planning is only in its initial stages, could not provide a timeline for their arrival, or say whether they would be armed.
Asked by reporters aboard Air Force One Thursday how many National Guard members he wants on the border, the president responded, “Anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000.” Asked about the cost, Trump said, the administration is “looking at it.”
“We’ll probably keep them – or a large portion of them – until the wall is built," Trump said.
The president has called the border situation a "crisis" and both he and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen have stressed the urgency of getting the Guard to the border, with Nielsen saying Wednesday she hoped they could arrive "immediately."
But similar past deployments have taken months.
A look at previous call-ups in 2006 and 2010 provides clues as to what the new operation could look like.
"The president has authorized the National Guard, with the affected governors' approval, to enhance its support to CBP (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) along the border," said Dana White, chief spokesperson for the Pentagon at a news conference. "The National Guard's efforts will include aviation, engineering, surveillance, communications, vehicle maintenance and logistical support."
"These National Guard members will act in support of Border Patrol agents who are performing law enforcement duties," she added. "We will focus on supporting CBP's priorities, which will determine the time frame and number of military personnel employed."
White announced that the Pentagon was creating a new Border Security Support Cell made up of several DoD representatives who would work 24/7 to be the "single conduit for information and coordination between the Pentagon and DHS." The cell will be headed by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security, Ken Rapuano.
"This is not business as usual," White said.
The Department of Homeland Security is currently assessing what additional support it needs along the border that in turn will help the Pentagon determine how many Guardsmen will be needed.
The White House plan to send National Guardsmen to the border with Mexico is similar to Operation Jump start in 2006 and Operation 2010.
The first step lies with the governors of the four southwestern border states who are authorized to call up Guardsmen in their states under what is known as Title 32. DHS Secretary Nielsen said Wednesday that the troops would be called up under that authority.
Both Operation Jump Start in 2006 and Operation Phalanx in 2010 involved National Guardsmen who were called up by Title 32. That authority allows Governors to call up Guardsmen for Homeland Defense activities with the federal government picking up the costs of the operation.
But this does not mean that the Guardsmen have been "federalized" into active duty troops as would occur under what's known as Title 10 when the President declares an emergency.
In 2010, it took two months from the public announcement of Operation Phalanx before the first of 1,200 Guardsmen from the border states arrived at their duty stations. 2006's Operation Jump Start, that lasted two years, was larger in scope and involved more than 6,000 Guardsmen from states all across the country.
In both operations, Guardsmen assisted Border Patrol agents as extra sets of eyes at observation posts or far from the border analyzing surveillance feeds. Their information was forwarded to Customs and Border Personnel who acted on their information.
Though Guardsmen called up under Title 32 are allowed to carry out law enforcement duties, in both 2006 and 2010 the Department of Defense issued guidance that they would not do so. White said Thursday that the Guardsmen involved in the new border operation will also support border patrol agents performing law enforcement duties.
A 2012 GAO report explained why the Defense Department did not want its troops carrying out law enforcement.
“The National Guard mission limitations are based in part on concerns raised by both DOD and National Guard officials that civilians may not distinguish between Guardsmen and active duty military personnel in uniform, which may lead to the perception that the border is militarized," said the report.
"Therefore, all arrests and seizures at the southwest land border are performed by the Border Patrol.”
Lt. General Frank McKenzie, the Director of the Joint Staff said Thursday that it was still too early to determine if the Guardsmen would be armed. Mexico's Foreign Ministry said Wednesday night that it had been assured by the administration that the Guardsmen would not be armed.
But in 2010 Pentagon officials said Guardsmen would be armed, but that they could only use their weapons for self-defense. But many of those troops were set back in duties far from the actual border.
And it's still too early to determine how much the operation will cost, but the two previous border operations cost $1.3 billion -- $1.2 billion for Operation Jump Start in 2006-2008 and $110 million for Operation Phalanx in 2010.