Thousands of drone incursions at the US-Mexico border led US Senators, including Sen. Ted Budd, R-NC, to question two top generals at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last Thursday.

Air Force General Gregory M. Guillot, commander of North American Defense Command and US Northern Command (USNORTHCOM), and Army General Laura J. Richardson, commander of US Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM), faced a myriad of questions on what is being done to keep Americans safe, including what steps were in place to stop fentanyl and other illegal drugs from entering the country and human trafficking. 

Budd asked Guillot how many drone incursions have occurred at the border. 

Sen. Ted Budd, R-NC, questions two top generals at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Source: Sen. Budd’s YouTube page.

Guillot said while he doesn’t have an actual number as he only took command last month, according to those he has spoken with at US Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Justice, the number is in the thousands, averaging approximately 1,000 per month.

Budd asked Guillot if they represented a threat to homeland security. While alarmed at seeing the drones, Guillot responded, nothing had manifested into a threat, yet, but the potential was growing. 

Budd then pivoted to ask Guillot if he thought the F-15E Strike Eagle was a capable aircraft and if any particular characteristics made it ideal for homeland defense. The Strike Eagle is a “phenomenal aircraft with a phenomenal radar,” Guillot said, adding that made it ideal for picking out low, slow-moving objects and low radar cross-sections such as drones or other threats like cruise missiles.

Budd raised concerns over US Air Force plans to divest 26 F-15Es in its 2025 Fiscal Year budget, while at the same time buying fewer than expected F-35s and other fighter jets. Some of the F-15E Strike Eagles come from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro.

“It has me very concerned, not just for homeland defense, but including potential conflict with China and also for responses to crises and other geographic combatant commands,” he said.  

Budd rounded out his questioning by asking both generals if there was a plan in place to combat the Mexican drug cartels from moving, not only deadly drugs across the border and into the US, but also human trafficking. 

He stated that Section 1068 of the fiscal year 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requires the Secretary of Defense to submit a plan for coordinating with defense partners in North and South America and supporting interagency departments and agencies to counter human trafficking.

Both Guillot and Richardson said they weren’t working on that plan.

“Not to you, but to the Department of Defense and the secretary, that’s disappointing,” Budd replied. “I’d like to follow up with both of you and the department on this to make sure that begins to get implemented so we can begin stopping the illegal flow of deadly fentanyl and other drugs and the tragic trafficking of humans. That’s big business for the cartels, and it’s contributing to instability in countries across our hemisphere.”

Richardson agreed, noting that transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) have gotten more powerful with an estimated $300+ billion in annual revenue, trafficking humans, drugs, gold, lithium, and all kinds of counterfeit goods. 

In 2023, more than 100,000 people died from fentanyl overdoses in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Over the past nine years, more than 13,000 North Carolinians have died from overdosing on the drug. 

Hundreds of North Carolinians have died this year from fentanyl.

Recently,  Operation Thunder on the Hill in Nash County, North Carolina, resulted in three arrests and seizure of 419 fentanyl pills, 68 grams of crack cocaine, and 490 grams of powder cocaine. The haul was likely headed to campuses and communities across the state. Investigators tracked this drug trafficking ring along I-95 in Rocky Mount for nearly two years.

In December 2023, 14 members of a drug organization with ties to the Mexican cartels, Sinaloa and CJNG, were sentenced to years in prison in North Carolina. They trafficked 328 kilograms of cocaine, 26 kilograms of fentanyl, and a kilogram of heroin in the Charlotte area between 2017 and 2022. The illegal alien gang members were also charged with illegally possessing 60 firearms.

Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-MO, said the growing number of Chinese nationals coming across the border was of great concern to him, as many as tenfold by some accounts, maybe more, at an unnatural rate. He stated that he was worried about espionage operations and asked Guillot his thoughts on the situation.

Guillot told Schmitt that it was a big concern of his as well, so much so that since he took over command last month, he has gone down to the Southern border to talk to the agents and leadership and has also spoken with the acting commissioner of the US Customs and Border Control (CBP) on the subject.

“What concerns me most about, specifically the Chinese migrants, is number one, that they’re so centralized in one location across the border, and two is while many may be political refugees and other explanations, the ability for counterintelligence to hide in plain sight in those numbers,” he said.

Schmitt noted that 21,000 people had crossed into California in the last four months.

“What have you heard about coordinated activities, and are we aware of specific efforts on their part to be in parts of the interior United States with sensitive military locations?” Schmitt asked Guillot.

“What I’ve been told by our partners in CBP is that the reason that California is the focal point is just simply the ease of flying from China into Tijuana and then across,” Guillot said. “I am concerned, I think you were alluding to this, and I have talked to our partners about this, is how the surges seem to be coordinated and commanded and controlled using social media, primarily by the cartels to drive the migrants to areas where we might not be.” 

He said NORTHCOM supports the CBP for detection and monitoring along the site with about 2500 military members, primarily from the Army and the Marine Corps. They work very closely to pick up where those surges are as well as where the gaps are with the monitoring equipment to alert the law enforcement side of Border Protection to make the apprehensions.

Schmitt finished his questioning by asking what is occurring with drone activity at the border that the cartels are presumably coordinating. Guillot replied that the overall majority of the activity is from spotters trying to find out where the military is so they can go to where they are not located. A smaller number of drones are carrying narcotics.