Border state politicians like Governors Jan Brewer and Rick Perry together with an array of congressional Democrats and Republicans – notably the leadership of the homeland security oversight committees (including Michael McCaul, Henry Cuellar, and Candice Miller) insist that the increased deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is fundamental to securing the border.
But as Predator drones have increased, the number of marijuana seizures and arrests of illegal border crossers attributed to drone surveillance has dropped precipitously.
During the six months of operation of the ill-fated first border Predator (which crashed in the Arizona desert in April 2006), the drone accounted for nearly a third of the total 2005-2011 drone-related apprehensions and nearly one-fifth of total drug seizures.
At congressional hearings since 2005, OAM officials routinely report on the drone program with anecdotes and tributes to the wondrous technological capacities of the UAVs. Facts and figures, costs and benefits, and impact evaluations compared to other border security programs are, however, not routinely reported.
At the July 15, 2010 hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee, then chairman Democrat Bennie Thompson insisted that OAM provide the committee with specific data. Frustrated by CBP’s hyping its high-tech programs without offering any continuing failure to provide Congress with
CBP complied and later submitted that since the inception of the program in October 2005 through July 2010, OAM had flown drones 6,979 hours over the southwestern border, with 7,173 illegal immigrants apprehended and 39,049 pounds of narcotics (all marijuana, according to the July 2010 CBP report) seized.
In the four years since the crash of the first Predator, the border drone fleet had increased to five UAVs. Total UAV flight-time increased seven-fold the hours reported during the October 2005-April 2006 period, yet total drone-related apprehensions were only up three-fold while total drug seizures were up four-fold.
As the number of CBP/OAM drones rise, the productivity – measured by the traditional performance measures of immigrants detained and drugs seized – of the UAV program has dropped precipitously.
The most recent CBP numbers, cited in the agency’s Dec. 27 media release, raise new questions about the cost-benefit of the drone program.
Flight time rose to approximately 12,000 hours. Yet the roughly 5,000 recent hours (since July 2010) of drone surveillance contributed, according to CBP’s own reporting, to only 325 new apprehensions and 7,000 pounds of marijuana.
To give some perspective on the drug haul attributed to UAV surveillance, in Arizona alone CBP seizes on average 3,500 pounds of marijuana every day – making a marijuana seizure every 1.7 hours. In the past couple of years the Border Patrol has seized approximately 2.5 million pounds of marijuana along the southwestern border.
CBP/OAM hails its “eyes in the sky” drone program has being “cost effective” and a “force multiplier.”
Setting aside the up-front costs of the $20 million drones and the additional maintenance expenses and contractor services fees, and counting only the hourly operational costs, CPB/OAM has spent $17.5 million keeping its drones flying about 5,000 hours over the past year and a half.
In an October media release announcing the acquisition of another Predator for border-security duty in Texas, CBP declared that it “has continued to leverage the Predator B to unprecedented success.”
CBP routinely describes its various border security operations as “unprecedented” success stories. Yet the never agency never cites the precedents involved or even attempts to explain how these precedents in border control have been surpassed by its new initiatives and spending.
If evaluated, as none of the DHS agencies do, in terms of costs and benefits, then the CBP UAV program spent (only in flight costs) $54,846 for every illegal immigrant identified (and later apprehended by Border Patrol teams) on the drone cameras and $2,500 for every pound of marijuana. That’s without factoring in the estimated $20 million that DHS spends for its Predators.
The Larger Threat Picture
Asked at Border and Marine Security subcommittee hearing if the Predators were worth the expense, Major General (Ret.) Kostelnik redirected the question away from actual achievements to the larger threat picture of protecting the homeland against unknown future threats. Kostelnik told the congressional oversight committee:
I think the UAVs in their current deployment are very helpful in terms of the missions we apply it for. I believe we are building a force for a threat and an experience we really haven't seen yet. It is something that is in the future.
Major General Kostelnik summarized his support for DHS strategy to deploy two dozen drones, telling the oversight committee: “So not only are they ongoing force multipliers for the agents and troops on the ground, but they are unique capabilities in unique circumstances.”
Members of the DHS oversight committees also cite national security threats as the rationale for their drone boosterism, and like the major general are equally vague about the specific character of the threats that would justify the billions of dollars needed to continue the CBP/OAM drone strategy.
Henry Cuellar, former chairman and currently ranking member of the Border Security and Marine Subcommittee, has become one of the most prominent boosters of DHS drone acquisition. The Democrat from South Texas and co-chair of the House Unarmed Systems Caucus, explained his enthusiasm for the Predators on the border in his opening statement to the July 15, 2010 subcommittee hearing:
UAVs are one more tool for us to stay steps ahead and leaps
above the threats that we face, and they can help deter and
prevent illegal activity and threats to terrorism against the United States. In the event of a National crisis, they will provide critical eyes in the sky for what we can't see or do from the ground.
DHS does not measure the progress and achievements of the program by the number of terrorists seized, drug lords and lieutenants captured, or “transnational criminal organizations” broken by its border security operations.
Instead, border security programs -- whether traditional patrolling, the border fence, the “virtual wall” of SBInet, traditional air surveillance, or unmanned aerial surveillance -- continue to be measured by traditional border-control benchmarks: how many immigrants are captured and how many pounds of illegal drugs are seized.
It is a costly numbers game that has done little or nothing to resolve the country’s immigration policy challenges or the failures of its drug control policy.
Join Border Wars Policy Group to follow/discuss border security, immigrant imprisonment, and drug policy issues at: