Budget Woes End DHS Plans to Expand Drone Fleet

By Stew Magnuson
The Department of Homeland Security had plans as late as last year to increase its fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles to two dozen aircraft by 2016, but tight federal budgets has capped their numbers at 10.

A Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman confirmed that the agency will not request any further Predator B, medium-altitude, long-endurance UAVs.

“CBP can purchase up to 24 systems, but that authorization is based on the availability of funding. The option remains open, when/if funding is available” to complete the fleet, she said in a statement.

This comes in the wake of a DHS inspector general report released in June that revealed that CBP is not using the aircraft to their full potential. A management response to the report stated, “CBP currently has no plan to extend the UAS fleet beyond the 10 systems already in operation or on order, unless directed to do so by a higher authority.”

CBP officials have said they would like to ultimately fly the unpiloted aircraft to any part of the nation within a few hours at the request of other agencies to perform non-border security missions.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency used them for disaster response assessments. The Bureau of Land Management, the FBI, the Defense Department, the Texas Rangers and the Forest Service are among the other agencies that have used the CBP drones, the report said. Yet a system has not been put in place to receive reimbursement from these other organizations, the report added.

The report found that the agency did not have all the necessary repair equipment and personnel in place at the airports where they are based, which resulted in idle aircraft. The seven aircraft in operation during the investigation should have totaled 10,662 flight hours per year and be operationally available 13,328 hours. They were only available for 7,336 hours and flew only 3,909 hours.

Flying large UAVs such as the Predator B is not cheap, CBP found out. They cost about $18 million each. Keeping them in the air is expensive as well. The operations and maintenance budget includes training and paying personnel, satellite communication links, facility rental and contractor support. CBP was forced to transfer $25 million from other programs in fiscal year 2010 to make up for budget shortfalls, the report said.

According to figures DHS provided to the Government Accountability Office in 2010, it costs $3,234 per hour to fly a Predator B, almost double the military’s cost to fly its Air Force and Army equivalents.  

“CBP has not achieved its scheduled nor desired levels of flight hours of its unmanned aircraft,” the IG concluded.

House Homeland Security Committee ranking member Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said in a statement that, “The agency is spending money without adequate or proper planning, resulting in expensive aircraft spending most of the time idle on the ground. CBP must … ensure the UAS program makes the most out of taxpayer money and our border security budget.”

Philip Finnegan, Teal Group director of corporate analysis, said the aircrafts’ underutilization the report reveals is a sign of growing pains that is common when new technology is introduced to a force. Congress may be at the root of the problem, he noted. It has funded the procurement of the aircraft quicker than CBP could build up its infrastructure. And it has not provided enough funding to operate them, he said.

“My expectation is that this will be a pause” in the acquisition plans. But it is hard to tell how long it will last with the murky budget outlook, he added.

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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