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Security Beat 

DHS May Wait 14 Years To Complete Its UAV Fleet 


By Stew Magnuson and Ashleigh Fugate 

Department of Homeland Security officials said they need 24 unmanned aerial vehicles to patrol the U.S. border, and carry out other domestic missions such as disaster relief.

The problem is that the department has only been receiving funding for about one Predator per year. It has six UAVs now, with numbers seven and eight in the manufacturing and appropriations pipeline. Congress passed a $600 million emergency funding bill for border security, which added two more drones for fiscal year 2010.

Despite Congress’ unexpected largess, that’s a long wait — perhaps as long as 14 years — before Customs and Border Protection’s office of air and marine has all the remotely piloted aircraft it needs.

At “our normal procurement of one system per year, I think you can see how long that would take,” the office’s director, Michael Kostelnik, told the House Homeland Security Committee’s subcommittee on border, maritime and global counterterrorism, prior to the supplemental bill passing.

DHS is thinking beyond the northern and southern border missions for its proposed 24-plane Predator fleet. It would like the ability to send a UAV anywhere in the continental United States within three hours in case of a natural disaster, Kostelnik said.

No other CBP aircraft can provide 20 hours of non-stop coverage, Kostelnik said.

The new maritime variant has already been used in non-law enforcement scenarios. CBP and the Coast Guard wrapped up a joint pilot program to test the Guardian UAV, which is a Predator adapted to operate in the harsh ocean environment. It was used to monitor the BP oil spill this spring, and can also assess damage in the aftermath of floods and hurricanes, Kostelnik said. It carries a broad-area sea-search radar “with impressive long-range detection and tracking capabilities,” he said.

The biggest challenge has been hiring experienced pilots and sensor operators. There is keen competition among Defense Department, industry and DHS to hire qualified operators. Congress authorized the hiring of 24 certified UAV pilots last year. CBP reached its hiring goal, “but only a few brought with them significant … experience,” Kostelnik said.

Reader Comments

Re: DHS May Wait 14 Years To Complete Its UAV Fleet

A few thoughts:

Why is it so important for DHS to complete this UAV fleet? They have so many other options available to them for border security and monitoring that are more cost effective. They aren't even utilizing their current fleet very much.

The second thought - what will it cost the Federal Government in year-over-year costs to truly clamp down the borders? The processing, detainment, exportation. How many UAVs will it take for 24/7 monitoring? In reality, one has to believe that the best the Border Patrol can do is catch a quota of offenders.

We should be careful to throw taxpayer cash at them for so many more big, shiny toys without considering compelling alternatives and the cost of a higher capture rate.

Anonymous on 08/17/2010 at 19:49

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