“The UAVs, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, are coming.” So says Candice Miller, the Republican congresswoman from northern Michigan borderlands.
She should know. Miller chairs the Border and Maritime Security of the House Committee on Homeland Security, which oversees the Department of Homeland Security’s rush to deploy drones to keep the homeland secure.
In practice, there’s more boosterism than effective oversight in the House Homeland Security Committee and in Miller’s subcommittee.
The same holds true for most of the more than one hundred other congressional committees that purportedly oversee the DHS and its budget. Since the creation of DHS in 2003 Congress has routinely approved annual and supplementary budgets for border security that have been higher than those requested by the president and DHS.
One reason for the proliferation of DHS oversight committees is interest by congressional representatives like Miller in increasing DHS operations – and associated federal pork – in their districts. Another is the widespread and eminently bipartisan desire by politicians to demonstrate their commitment to border security, immigration enforcement, and counterterrorism.
Pentagon Filling Capacity Gaps at Home
Miller, who frequently displays her familiarity with military jargon, advocates the increased use of military technology for border and homeland security. She points to the increasing and allegedly successful use of the grimly baptized Predator and Reaper drones by DHS as an example of how military technology “used in theater in Iraq and Afghanistan” can be easily adopted to “fill capacity gaps at home.”
On November 15 Miller presided over a congressional hearing to explore how DHS can find technological solutions to homeland and border security in the military technology that is “coming back from theater.”
The DHS is the lead federal agency in bringing drones to the home theater, although the Department of Justice is also working closely with aviation technology manufacturers and local law enforcement agencies to introduce drones to police and sheriffs departments.
The Pentagon is also playing a major role in the planning to open more U.S. airspace for drone testing and deployment for national defense and homeland security, while U.S. military and National Guard bases are hosting DHS drones.
Another major player, of course, is the UAV industry, which is eager to open up not only U.S. airspace but also the international market for public and private drone operations.
Drone undoubtedly will play an increasing role in military, homeland security, border security, and law enforcement operations. Miller is certainly right that drones are coming.
Escalation Without Review
But as drones start coming to a theater near you, there is little reason to believe that government has exercised the due diligence and proper oversight when reviewing drone deployment plans.
Much of the enthusiasm for drones stems from the much-touted success of drones in military missions, particularly in hunting down and killing terrorists in South Asia and the Middle East.
But overseas drone operations have rapidly escalated in the absence of strategic review of the long-term consequences for international law, U.S. overseas missions, and U.S. national security.
News that a U.S. stealth drone – a RQ-170 manufactured by Lockheed Martin -- apparently crashed on Iranian soil underscored fears of critics of drone proliferation that the technology will inevitably fall into hostile hands. The crash highlighted, too, the high crash rate of drones as the result of technological communications failures and the absence of onboard piloting.
At home, drone deployment is marching ahead without any cost-benefit evaluations, impact studies, or even any assessments about which UAVs might best meet DHS perceived needs. With respect to homeland security, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is simply purchasing the hugely expensive unarmed versions of the Predator and Reaper UAVs (manufactured by General Atomics) that are currently deployed in overseas wars and interventions.
Neither the Obama administration nor Congress has insisted that CBP provide documentation to support its repeated assertions that UAV’s function as “force multiplier” for the Border Patrol and that drone patrols have substantially improved “border security.” What is more, CBP has failed to demonstrate that it has sufficient skilled personnel and the required logistical capability to operate UAVs successfully.
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