Nov. 14 (UPI) -- U.S. troops on the U.S.-Mexico border are providing logistical and medical support, including temporary housing, to customs and border law enforcement efforts, and are mostly unarmed, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said on Wednesday.
Mattis conducted a press conference on the way to meet with commanders and soldiers deployed on the U.S.-Mexican border near McAllen, Texas, saying the mission was in line with similar operations conducted in the past and that operations by the military would remain limited to support for civilian law enforcement at the moment.
The Secretary said there is precedent for sending troops to the southern border, as was done at points during the previous four presidential administrations. He also referred to other incidents in the past, such as the U.S. Army intervention along the border in 1916 against the likes of guerillas such as Pancho Villa.
"I think it is very clear that support to border police, our border patrol is necessary right now." Mattis said while noting that members of the Mexican police were previously injured in clashes with members of the migrant caravan near the Guatemala-Mexico border.
There are currently 5,900 troops deployed to the border under orders from President Donald Trump to assist border patrol officials as a caravan continues to make its way through Mexico that Trump likened to an "invasion" before last Tuesday's mid-term elections.
Troops deployed to the border under the lead of U.S. Northern Command and NORTHCOM Gen. Terrence J. O'Shaughnessy in support of the Department of Homeland Security.
Mattis said troops are there to provide logistical and medical support to customs and medical teams, including temporary housing. Soldiers also have been constructing roads, fuel depots, barricades and other facilities needed by border enforcement. The only armed troops are military police in a standard overwatch and force protection role, as they would do anywhere.
"The personnel actually doing the missions are not armed," Mattis said.
Helicopter rehearsals have been conducted so that Border Patrol can quickly transported by Army helicopters if needed for reinforcement. "They are not being used to transport U.S. troops right now," Mattis said, adding that troops are working to assist in the placement of obstacles along the border.
While there are currently 5,900 troops deployed, Mattis said the number could fluctuate up or down, with a likely ceiling of 7,000 soldiers sent on the assistance mission.
Mattis declined to estimate the costs involved with the operation, saying that deployed units are tracking their expenditures, and that the Pentagon has not received those individual estimates yet.
"I prefer to give you real costs," Mattis said citing the delay to reporting dollar estimates.
Mattis added that the deployment would not affect military readiness for other operations, saying the missions being conducted near the border were useful training for logistics and forward basing of units and that "in that respect, it is helping us."
After departing McAllen, Mattis was scheduled to meet with the Philippine ambassador at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming to mark the beginning of the transfer of the Balangiga Bells back to Philippine custody, which had been taken as war booty during the Filipino-American War in 1901.
During the war, villagers in Balangiga launched an ambush that led to the deaths of nearly 50 U.S. soldiers while they slept or were cooking breakfast. Soldiers who believed the three church bells were rung to signal the attack seized them as trophies. This was part of a series of reprisal killings against males over the age of 10 that led to the deaths of over 2,000 people.
The bells had been on display in South Korea and Wyoming until Mattis authorized their return following pressure from groups in the Philippines and U.S. groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars.