DHS Budget Request Has Little for Maligned Border Drone Program

By Stew Magnuson
A Department of Homeland Security inspector general report slammed Customs and Border Protection’s use of its unmanned aerial vehicle fleet, saying it was underused, very costly and that there was little evidence to support its effectiveness.

“CBP has invested significant funds in a program that has not achieved the expected results, and it cannot demonstrate how much the program has improved border security,” the IG report said.

It costs the agency $12,225 per hour to fly its Predator drones rather than the $2,468 it had reported, the IG said. They are only aloft 22 percent of the 16 hours per day that CBP had set as a goal, it added. The agency could only document a few instances where drones aided in the apprehension of illegal border crossers, the report said. It estimated that the program, which flew 10 medium-altitude, long-endurance Predators in fiscal year 2013, cost $62.5 million. One of the maritime variants crashed in January 2014, which brought the fleet’s number down to nine.

CBP — in the wake of the report — is seeking in the 2016 budget proposal an additional $35 million to increase flight hours, although the budget documents indicated that this wouldn’t necessarily be for unmanned systems. The bulk of that would be primarily spent on fuel, it said, and would be used in “high priority operations along the southwest border and within the drug source and transit zones.” The document did not mention UAS operations for the request, but singled out the P-3 and DSH-8 manned aircraft.

CBP is also asking for $8.4 million to hire 15 new UAS crews.

“The positions are needed to provide increased CBP aerial surveillance, enforcement and security posture for surges similar to that of unaccompanied children illegally entering the U.S.,” the document said.

The IG report called into question the effectiveness and cost benefits of using drones to locate border crossers on foot. It noted that CBP’s office of air and marine could only attribute 2,161 apprehensions in fiscal year 2013 in the Tucson sector, or 1.8 percent, to drone operations. In the Rio Grande Valley sector in Texas it came to 111 apprehensions, or .07 percent.

Even these figures are in question because Border Patrol agents told the IG investigators that those captured probably would have been spotted using ground-based assets such as fixed or mobile towers, unattended ground sensors or the agents themselves.

The report said the drones are not providing 100 percent coverage along the southwest border as CBP has touted. It didn’t mention the location of the gaps. In reality, the program concentrates on only a 100-mile swath of the Arizona border and 70 miles in Texas, the report said.

There is no new drone procurement in the 2016 budget request, but DHS proposed $44.4 million for the acquisition of two King Air-350CER multi-role enforcement aircraft, a manned system that carries land, sea and air-to-air radars.

Philip Finnegan, an analyst at the Teal Group who specializes in the UAV market, said the inspector general “has been very critical of the program in the past … but this [report] was pretty definitive.”

Signals from CBP of late indicated that it was backing off from its once ambitious plans to fly a fleet of 24 Predators, he said.

CBP’s vision was to have nationwide coverage of the Predators where they could be called into service within hours to perform other DHS missions such as damage assessment in the wake of a natural disaster in order to assist the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“It is going to be difficult for that program to move ahead with new purchases until they prove that they can successfully operate what they already have,” Finnegan said.

In addition, the report said the much-vaunted VADER sensor, which specializes in tracking dismounted targets aboard the Predators, was not used widely. A joint field command restricted its use to small areas near a Border Patrol station “to increase the certainty of a positive law enforcement resolution.”

The two sensors CBP acquired cost $16.8 million apiece and operational costs are $1.7 million per year. CBP has expressed a desire to purchase four more VADERs, although that request did not appear in the 2016 budget proposal.

CBP, in its written response to the IG report, said it had no plans to build out the fleet to 24 as long as it did not have the monetary resources to fly them. It did, however, want to replace the maritime Predator that crashed in 2014. It also said the VADER sensor is now being employed more widely.

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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