Do we need more drones at the border?
“Q: So McCaul’s [Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas)] proposal would expand the Department for Homeland Security’s drone fleet?”
“A: We probably need more. Our border has over 1,200 miles, so we will definitely need more of them to provide more coverage there.”
The notion that the U.S.-Mexico border needs to increase the size of its drone fleet is a claim that has been echoed in both the House and Senate. But a 2012 audit of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) drone program found just the opposite to be true: CBP does not, in fact, need more drones.
According to the report by the Office of Inspector General (OIG), CBP already owns more drones than it can afford to operate. In 2012, the agency had a fleet of seven unmanned aircraft. Just to meet the “mission availability threshold” (minimum capacity), each drone would need to log 10,662 flight hours per year. To reach the operational level actually desired by CBP, the drones would need to fly 13,328 hours per year.
But the drones flew just 3,909 hours—a mere 29 percent of desired capacity.
Although bad weather was one of the listed causes for falling so short of expectations, the main reason was that CBP had vastly underestimated the amount of resources necessary to support the drone fleet.
In addition to their steep price tag, unmanned aircraft cost approximately US$3,234 to operate per flight hour and require an hour of maintenance for every hour of flight. Not having anticipated, nor planned, for these high operational costs, CBP faced a budget shortfall and was forced to shuffle $25 million from other programs just to fly the drones at a third of their capacity. The program lacks qualified staff, ground control stations and equipment, cameras, and navigation systems, among other things. Because of this, the report concluded that until CBP develops plans to meet the desired operational capacity, it recommends the postponement of additional drone purchases.
Of course, achieving this goal would come at a cost; just to increase the flight time of the current fleet to desired levels would require $43.1 million per year—or 9 percent of the entire operations, maintenance, and procurement budget for CBP’s Air and Marine Branch ($504 million).
The Department of Homeland Security plans to increase the size of its fleet to 11 by 2016, and the Senate immigration bill (S.744), were it to pass the House, would authorize yet another four drones to be used on the border. At the rate cited above, these proposals would raise the annual cost to $92.4 million.
The question of whether to purchase more drones goes beyond purely economic considerations and stretches into the territory of civil liberty concerns. The constant use of drones over U.S. soil increases the likelihood of federal government spying on the activities of U.S. citizens. Not only has CBP yet to establish explicit rules that would protect the privacy rights of citizens, but it has also flown its Predator drones on behalf of other agencies, such as the FBI, DEA, and several County Sheriff’s Offices (the names of which have been withheld from the public) over 500 times in the past three years. Although the Inspector General has severely reprimanded CBP for failing to regulate who uses the drones, and how they are used, an explicit, overarching policy has not been implemented.
Beyond economics and efficiency, the use of new surveillance technologies at the border raises a host of new concerns. Rushing to increase the number of surveillance drones over U.S. territory without first addressing the issue of privacy and civil liberty concerns puts the government at risk of encroaching on U.S. citizens’ constitutional rights yet again.
— Ashley Davis