Is Drone Program On Border Wasting Millions?


Image courtesy of Dept. of Homeland Security/U.S. Customs and Border Patrol

Is Drone Program On Border Wasting Millions?
| published January 13, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

The Office of the Inspector General found recently that a high-tech border surveillance system which relies on unmanned aircraft systems—i.e. drones—may be largely ineffective at the role for which it was designed and deployed.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency first put the drone program to work eight years ago amid much expectation and excitement. The belief, reasonable at the time, was that high-altitude and low-altitude drones could offer reconnaissance and surveillance along some of the most remote stretches of border which separate the southern United States from Mexico. Drone imagery and data could also be used efficiently to track illegal border crossings, contain at some of the illegal immigration, and even help in the interdiction in criminal activities such as drug smuggling and human trafficking.

But the Inspector General’s recent report on the drone program, while acknowledging that the unmanned aircraft have contributed to border security and have offered an out-of-the-box solution to monitoring remote areas of border, says that the CBP “cannot prove that the program is effective because it has not developed performance measures.” In other words, the report confirms what some critics of the drone program have said all along: the expensive, gimmicky devices may not be providing a more effective role in border security than simply hiring more border patrol agents, and supplying those agents with better vehicles, newer weapons, and improved training.

The Inspector General’s investigation found that the drone program was falling far short of its original, highly optimistic goals.

“The program has also not achieved performance measures,” the report says in its executive summary, “Specifically, the unmanned aircraft are not meeting flight-hour goals, and we found little or no evidence CBP has met its program expectations.”

To the typical American taxpayer, the Border Patrol’s drone program seems like a no-brainer—and a cost-effective one at that. After all, wander into any public park in any city or town in the country, and you can find drone enthusiasts at play or at work with their unmanned flying gadgets. Many of these devices are surprisingly inexpensive, and most can be purchased online through Amazon and other web retailers for as little as $175. Better amateur and enthusiast models can range from $250 to $1000, depending on flight-range, battery-power, durability, optical devices and cameras, and software. Operating them is often as easy as downloading ready-to-use software onto a laptop or handheld tablet. And for the more serious enthusiasts, classes are now being taught at aviation schools, tech colleges, and even community colleges across the country. News services and television stations, even at the local level, are investing in drones as a cost-effective way to gain images of newsworthy events—assuming state and local laws allow for the use of drones in news-gathering. At around $950, drones equipped with tiny digital cameras are now di rigeur in TV production, and learning to operate the small-to-mid-sized devices can take only a few hours.

Why then, the Inspector General wanted to know, did the drones being deployed along the border by CBP cost more than $12,000 per hour to operate? Even the CBP’s own original estimation of $2,468 per flight-hour seems pricey, and adjusted for all software and personnel training, would strike many Americans as far more expensive than the deployment of two or three additional border agents in its place.

Part of the problem, the Inspector General says, is that the Border Patrol did not accurately factor-in the myriad of costs associated with the high-tech drones, which are of a military-grade design and capability. When all costs were factored-in comprehensively, the true price of operating the drones reaches a staggering $12,255, per flight hour. That means that a drone deployed along a remote corridor of border in West Texas, sent on a round trip of say three hours of surveillance, would cost taxpayers approximately $36,000. It takes only a few seconds of remedial math to realize than the cost of the drones runs into the many millions each year; by the Inspector General’s accounting, in the fiscal year 2013, the cost of the drone program on the border was $62.5 million.

That same year, when the cost of the program began to quickly overrun its projected budget parameters, the CBP asked Congress to an additional $443 million to help the drone project stay on track and produce better, actionable results.

Critics of the program say that for the same money, the CBP could have hired scores of new agents, trained them, and equipped them with state-of-the-art tools and weaponry. Part of that money could have also been deployed into better traditional forms of surveillance—such as cameras and motion sensors, many of which suffer rapid deterioration in the sometimes harsh environmental conditions found along the border which separates Texas, Arizona and New Mexico from Mexico. Others who are generally supportive of the CBP say that—at the least—some of that money could have been more wisely spent on the purchase of newer, lighter manned airplanes, which could patrol similar tracts of border areas at lower costs and with demonstrably better results.

But those who originally supported the use of the drones make the case—and a reasonable one—that the drones were then, and still are, a good idea. For one, drones take the obvious human risk out of the equation: more drones mean fewer agents patrolling sometimes patently dangerous stretches of remote border, where back-up may be many miles away in case of a confrontation or armed engagement. Drones also reduce the risk of officers injured or killed in small, fixed-wing aircraft or in helicopters (also expensive to operate). And the drones are able to reach some areas that would be otherwise inaccessible to border patrol agents. Drones might also have the advantage of being able to stealthily approach targeted sites and suspicious clusters of ground activity, locations which might go undetected when using a helicopters or small airplanes since smugglers and traffickers would simply disperse the moment they hear the sound of the engine of a plane or the rotors of a helicopter. Most heavy drones are able to operate with only a fraction of the decibel levels of a plane or chopper.

The CBP uses military-grade, state-of-the-art drones. In most cases, what is deployed for border patrol activity is what is called a Predator B Unmanned Aircraft (see photo). This is no Saturday-in-the-Park toy, nor is this the kind used even by big-market TV stations. Drones like this one are used by the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy, and the CIA in intelligence-gathering and military missions over Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and even Western Pakistan, and slightly larger models can be easily fitted for lethal purposes in the targeting of terror suspects in hostile landscapes like Yemen and Somalia. Unlike the small drones one might see hovering above the playground nearest your home, or surveying traffic congestion over your drive home after work, the Predator B is capable of flying at altitudes of 50,000 feet. It can reach speeds of 276 miles per hour, depending on wind conditions, and it can carry up to 1.9 tons of payload or equipment.

At the time of the Inspector General’s audit, Border Patrol had a fleet of ten of these drones. The Predator B cannot be flown using off-the-shelf software, or anything one can order by rummaging through the retail wares of Amazon. It requires specialized training—usually of a military or intelligence agency caliber—and it requires a highly specialized set of ground control monitors, tracking devices, and communications gear typically configured into a small control room called a bay. Here, in front of a battery of expensive computer hardware and tracking tools, sits the drone’s pilot.

According to the Inspector General, the CBP’s best intentions were to put these drones to work in surveillance and interdiction across thousands of miles of border. The highly-touted effectiveness of the drones employed by the Pentagon and the CIA in hostile places like Afghanistan and Iraq may have instilled a false sense of optimism that drones would be equally—and instantly, perhaps—effective along the remote borders between the U.S. and Mexico.

But comparing drone effectiveness in the airspaces above Afghanistan or Yemen with that of a stretch of the Rio Bravo near Big Bend National Park is to compare apples to frozen pizza. Drone strikes and drone activities over areas where the Pentagon or the CIA track jihadists or terror suspects are implemented only after long periods of careful tracking, data monitoring (cell phone calls, text messages, emails), on-the-ground intelligence, and dozens of layers of shared data—much of it from military allies and police partners in dozens of countries. No such mosaic of data and information exists along the border with Mexico. Even in those rare cases where Mexican law enforcement shares data about gang-related movements or drug-trafficking with their U.S. counterparts, the expensive military-grade drones produce very little in the way of intelligence or tracking that could not be accomplished using other tools. The Predator B’s are therefore, technological overkill—like using a flamethrower to knock down a wasp’s nest.

The expense of the drone project quickly escalated, and produced—according to the Inspector General—little actionable result. Instead, the unmanned aircraft project become a money pit for the CBP, and eventually drew the ire of some in Congress who asked why those millions could not have been better spent on traditional tools, upgrades to current systems, and more personnel in a department for which the most common complaint is lack of manpower in the field.

By middle 2013, Homeland Security was already proposing adding an additional 14 Predator drones to its existing fleet of 10, plus it was requesting a massive increase in funds to support the program—over budget, and unable to produce much improvement in border security and interdiction. The CBP’s endgame was to be able to state with accuracy that it was able to maintain 24-hour-per-day surveillance seven days a week, more-or-less year round—while also keeping labor costs to a minimum. But as the Inspector General’s report states, that long-term goal was “unrealistic and not attainable.”

The report further states that the drones produced no measurable increase in success.

“It is not possible,” the report says, “to determine to what extent unmanned aircraft increased apprehensions of illegal border crossers. When compared to USBP’s total number of reported apprehensions, however, OAM (Office of Air and Marine) attributed relatively few to the use of unmanned aircraft.”

The report includes a chart which illuminates the core of the problem: in the Texas-Rio Grande Valley region, apprehensions by USBP officers in fiscal year 2013 totaled 154,453; apprehensions attributed to the unmanned aircraft numbered 111. In other words, drones accounted for less than one tenth of one percent of apprehensions which were recorded in the Texas-Rio Grande Valley region.

In the Arizona-Tucson region however, border patrol agents are more optimistic. There, drones accounted for 1.8% of all apprehensions along the border—about two thousand apprehensions out of a total of 120,939. Either way, the Office of the Inspector General has concluded that the drone program has been a costly and inefficient way to secure the borders, especially when compared to traditional forms of patrol and interdiction.

The Inspector General’s report concedes that drones do have a place in border security, but stress that without adequate or reliable ways to measure their effectiveness, the unmanned aircraft are little more than excessively expensive gadgets, and certainly less reliable in terms of actionable results than more manpower in the field, better training, and plenty of traditional tools—Jeeps, SUVs, helicopters and small aircraft, appropriate weaponry, and solid, reliable intelligence.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Taxpayer Money Wasted on the Border; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; Sept. 12, 2014.

What is Gained or Lost With Drones?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 20, 2013.