In combat, the U.S. military aims to "find, fix and finish" the enemy, but in its increasingly organized role in securing the U.S. southwest border, the military must be more restrained.
"We can find and fix, but law enforcement must finish," said Marine Corps Col. Eric Judkins, deputy director of Joint Task Force North.
The active duty military cannot conduct law enforcement operations in the United States, Judkins explained during a discussion on the military’s part in border security at the Annual Meeting and Exposition of the Association of the United States Army.
The National Guard can take on law enforcement duties when in state status and when authorized to do so by the governor, but is rarely asked to do so, said Brig. Gen. Patrick Hamilton, domestic operations commander for the Texas National Guard.
Instead, the military is focused on improving its ability to help civilian agencies with the find and fix part of the equation.
Recent efforts to improve coordination between the military and local, state and federal law enforcement agencies are yielding results.
In Texas, the National Guard set up observation posts to keep watch over sections of the border.
"We didn’t move. It was persistent observation 24/7," and it plugged gaps in coverage that drug and migrant smugglers had learned to exploit, Hamilton said.
Guard helicopter pilots log myriad night training hours flying Border Patrol officers and other law enforcement personnel along the border, he said.
And, the military provides assets ranging from sensors to detect illegal cross-border traffic to engineers to strengthen border defenses.
As a result, illegal border crossings decreased to 332,000 in fiscal 2015 – down from 479,000 in 2014 and 1.6 million in 2000, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
The gains are due in part to increased use of the military – Texas deployed 1,000 National Guard members to the border in 2014 – but in part to better coordination between the military and law enforcement.
Under the sobriquet "interagency unity of effort," state and federal agencies and military commanders now meet to prioritize threats and coordinate operations far more than they did in the past.
Five years ago the National Guard and the active duty Army could both be conducting support operations on the border with neither being aware that the other was there.
"Not anymore," Judkins said.
Military personnel now coordinate with state, federal and tribal law enforcement personnel so that each better understands what the other has to offer, he said.
For the military, "The end game is to improve support for law enforcement on the border," he added.