US Customs and Border Protection has launched its drone program without undertaking a cost-benefit strategy that includes a specific role for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The agency continues to buy drones without planning for their support, maintenance or strategic value.
The Department of Homeland Security’s drone program isn’t classified, unlike the highly secretive CIA and military drone programs outside the United States.
Nonetheless, information about the DHS program to “secure the borders” with unmanned aerial systems is guarded, except for the self-serving press releases occasionally issued by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the DHS agency that includes the Border Patrol.
CBP has kept a tight lid on its drone program since 2004, when the agency decided to launch the unmanned aircraft as the homeland counterpart to the foreign “war on terrorism” — where drone strikes have come to play a central role.
Media inquiries and freedom of information requests by groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have been met largely by DHS stonewalling. For their part, Congressional oversight committees function almost exclusively as drone booster clubs. However, a trickle of reviews by government entities such as the Congressional Research Service, Government Accountability Office and the DHS Inspector General’s Office have begun to shed some light on the secretive homeland security drone program.
Like the government’s highly controversial foreign program of hunter-killer drones, it is becoming apparent that the DHS drone operations also deserve urgent public and congressional scrutiny. But not so much because national or international laws are being violated, US citizens targeted, or anyone is being hunted down and killed by these drones – at least thus far. Mostly the DHS drone program needs to be subjected to full transparency and accountability because it’s been such a bust – an enormous waste of money.
Although the drone program started in 2004, the first hard information provided by DHS about its drone program came in May 2012 in the form of a brief report by the DHS Office of Inspector General: CBP’s Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the Nation’s Border Security, DHS Office of Inspector General, issued in May 2012.
This report, while limited to the shocking management failures of CBP, hints at the more serious underlying problems, like the lack of strategic directions and the dubious achievements of the drone operations of agency’s Office of Air and Marine (OAM).
Predators Quickly Adapted for Border Security
The homeland security drone program, directed by a retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael Kostelnik (who played a key role in developing the armed Predator drone used for so-called “hunter-killer” missions overseas, deploys a fleet of highly expensive Predators on the nation’s borders. The unarmed Predators, produced for border duty by General Atomics, cost $18.5 million to $20.5 million apiece, not counting the hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts for General Atomics to operate and maintain the homeland drones.
Flush with billions of dollars in post-9/11 funding for “border security,” DHS hurriedly launched the campaign to patrol the borders – north and south – with these Predators. In the rush to secure the homeland, DHS trampled over due-diligence standards to speed through orders for the drones, pilots and crews supplied by General Atomics.
CBP started deploying drones along the Arizona border without a plan for how they would be deployed, without a strategy defining their role in border security and without any cost-benefit evaluations, which would determine how effective and cost-efficient drones are compared to other instruments of border control – like agents on the ground, light manned aircraft or less-expensive, smaller drones.
The border agency claimed that the Predator drones would function as a “force multiplier.” Yet CBP offered no research indicating Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) would indeed increase the efficiency of Border Patrol agents or result in higher rates of drug seizures and apprehensions.
Even accepting the notion that arrests of unauthorized immigrants and seizures of marijuana backpackers illegally crossing the border with their bundles of Mexican-grown weed contribute to homeland security, the numbers of immigrant apprehensions and drug seizures (almost exclusively marijuana) are low for these high-tech, high-budget drone operations.
CBP boasted in December 20111 that drone operations contributed to 7,500 apprehensions of illegal border crossers and 46,600 pounds of marijuana.
The 7,500 “criminal aliens” that the Border Patrol detained are small potatoes when compared to CBP’s overall number of detentions since 2005 – 5.7 million immigrants, including the 327,000 detained in 2011. Expressed as a percentage, this amounts to only .001 percent of those detained during that period.
While categorized by CBP as “dangerous people” because they have crossed the border illegally, mostly they are simply unauthorized immigrants, although a small number are marijuana backpackers.
To give some perspective to the drug haul attributed to UAV surveillance over six years – 46,600 pounds of marijuana – CBP on average seizes 3,500 pounds of marijuana every day in Arizona, making a seizure every 1.7 hours. Drones had a role in the seizure of less than one percent of the Border Patrol’s total marijuana in the past six years – only .003 percent to be precise.
Then, there is the matter of drones as counterterrorism instruments: how these unmanned remotely piloted vehicles can be used to identify, track and apprehend terrorists and terrorist weapons of mass destruction.
The drone program, according to CBP, focuses operations on the CBP priority mission of anti-terrorism by helping “to identify and intercept potential terrorists and illegal cross-border activity.” Yet, neither as part of its decision to launch the drone program nor in any subsequent pronouncements, releases, strategy statements or descriptions of drone accomplishments has CBP ever supported its assertion that drones are effective counterterrorist instruments.
The failure to link actual drone operations to the agency’s “priority mission of anti-terrorism” is not surprising or unexpected. CBP makes the same claim about all its border security operations without ever attempting to detail how these operations are shaped or evaluated by its anti-terrorism mission.
Over the past eight years, CBP has steadily expanded its drone program without providing any detailed information about the program’s functionality and total costs. Instead, to keep its expensive UAV program moving forward, CBP has relied on hugely supportive congressional oversight committees and on the widespread belief among politicians and the public in the efficiency of high-tech solutions.
After eight years, information about the homeland security drones has been limited to a handful of CBP announcements about new drone purchases, a series of unverifiable CBP statistics about drone-related drug seizures and immigrant arrests, and congressional presentations by OAM’s chief, Kostelnik, that have been replete with anecdotes and assertions but short on facts.
The DHS internal review of the report of OAM and its drone operations didn’t examine the accomplishments or the worth of the UAV program. The limited focus of the report was even more basic, namely, CBP’s failure to have a budgetary plan for its UAVs. According to the OIG report, CBP has kept acquiring new drones, even though it doesn’t have the staff or infrastructure to support its expanding fleet of Predator and Guardian (a marine variant) drones.
The OIG report’s conclusions point to an utter lack of strategic, operational and financial planning by CBP. According to DHS report, “CBP had not adequately planned resources needed to support its current unmanned aircraft inventory.”
Although CBP’s annual budget and the supplementary authorizations for border security did cover the basic purchase price of new drones, the agency kept purchasing Predator and later Guardian drones even though OAM didn’t have the personnel, budget or infrastructure to operate the drones. According to the department’s inspector general, CBP lacked even the most elementary plan to “ensure that required equipment, such as ground control stations and ground support equipment, is provided.”
The OIG also found that OAM didn’t have procedures to bill other federal agencies like FEMA and the US Forest Service when CBP responded to requests for drone deployment away from the border. During his tenure as OAM chief, Kostelnik has repeatedly and increasingly boasted that his division’s drones are serving a wide range of missions not related to border security, such as providing aerial images of forest fires.
Although Kostelnik frequently has attempted to explain the worth of the drone program by referring to such non-mission-related operations, not once did the OAM chief explain who paid for such operations and not once did congressional members query Kostelnik about the financing of these non-border operations.
There is no public record of where and when DHS drones have been deployed. One of the mysteries of the program over the past eight years is how CBP has been able to reconcile its seemingly contradictory statements about drone deployment. On the one hand, CBP routinely insists that drones perform a critical role in securing the border against an array of threats. On the other hand, however, CBP has increasingly described the value of its drones in terms of their use by other federal agencies.
What is more, OAM has made its drones available to assist local law enforcement agencies in operations unrelated to border security and has regularly shipped its drones to air shows around the nation and even outside the country, notably appearances at the Paris Air Show. At a June 12, 2011 congressional hearing, Kostelnik mentioned that OAM took a Guardian Predator to the 2011 Paris Air Show where it was on display at the DOD pavilion.
“That was the first time ever a Reaper Class Predator B aircraft was ever on display at the Paris Air Show,” said Kostelnik, noting that it created a “good deal of interest with our partnership nations.” Seemingly unable to justify OAM’s deployment of drones for effective border control, Kostelnik noted OAM’s role in getting other nations interested in buying Predators. “So in that arena we’re on the leading edge of that policy,” observed Kostelnik.
One explanation of the use of CBP drones for non-border objectives, including promoting Predator purchases abroad, is what the OIG describes as the lack of OAM planning processes that would “determine how mission requests are prioritized.” OIG wasn’t able to find any evidence of a CBP/OAM strategy that guided drone deployments.
According to OIG, “CBP has procured unmanned aircraft before implementing adequate plans to: achieve the desired level of operation; acquire sufficient funding to provide necessary operations, maintenance and equipment; and coordinate and support stakeholder needs.”
Concerning the actual operations of the border security UAVs, OIG found that:
• Drone usage fell drastically short of OAM’s own “mission availability threshold” (minimum capability) and its mission availability objective – 37 percent and 29 percent.
• Because of budget shortfalls for UAV maintenance, CBP in 2010 alone had to transfer $25 million from other CBP programs to maintain its UAV fleet even at a usage level that fell far short of the planned minimum.
• CPB has run its drone program in violation of its own operational standards and lacks the required “mobile backup ground control stations” at three of the four drone bases.
The OIG observed that despite this history of low usage and the lack of operational budget for its UAV fleet, OAM had ordered three additional drones from General Atomics.
In its understated conclusion, the OIG stated that CBP is “at risk of having invested substantial resources in a program that underutilizes resources and limits its ability to achieve OAM mission goals.” Therefore, “CBP needs to improve planning of its unmanned aircraft system program to address its level of operation, program funding and resource requirements, along with stakeholder needs.”
The US government – and particularly DHS – also needs to take more seriously its responsibility to not waste public revenues on high-tech border security programs that are dysfunctional and lack strategic focus. In the case of the UAV program and other high-tech ventures of the Border Patrol, the inflated and alarmist rhetoric about homeland security has covered up an endemic pattern of mismanagement.
Without a better match between mission and programming at DHS, its surveillance – whether by agents with binoculars, or cameras, towers, aerostats or drones – will remain unfocused. There may be mission-appropriate and helpful uses for drones by federal agencies. But it would appear to be a waste and a perversion of priorities to have Predator drones patrolling the skies on the hunt for immigrants and marijuana.