16-Year Wait to Equip DHS With Enough UAVs to Patrol the Border
The problem is that the department is only receiving funding for about one Predator per year. It has six UAVs now, with numbers seven and eight in the manufacturing and appropriations pipeline.
That’s a long wait — perhaps as long as 16 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.
DHS is thinking beyond the northern and southern border missions for its proposed 24-Predator fleet.
DHS 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.
Its 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 climate. It has been used to monitor the BP oil spill, 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.
DHS will receive a second Guardian later this year. It also recently received Federal Aviation Administration approval to fly a Predator for the first time along the South Texas border and the Gulf. No other CBP aircraft can provide 20 hours of non-stop coverage, Kostelnik said.
The biggest challenge has been hiring experienced pilots and sensor operators. There is keen competition among Defense Department, industry and DHS to hire pilots. Congress authorized the hiring of 24 certified UAV pilots last year. CBP reached its hiring goal, “but only a few brought with them significant UAS experience,” Kostelnik said.
Ashleigh Fugate contributed to this report.