The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) program of CBP’s Office of Air and Marine isn’t classified like the drone programs of the CIA and the U.S. military in the Middle East and South Asia. Yet information about the federal government’s use of UAVs for homeland security has been scarce. Meanwhile, Congress last year approved the authorization act for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) only after the FAA agreed to take measures to fully integrate drones into the national air space by late 2015.
CBP has kept a tight lid on its drone program since 2004, when the agency decided to launch its drone program using unarmed versions of the Predator drones used by the CIA and the military in what the Bush administration called the “war on terrorism.”
CBP launched its drone program without undertaking a cost-benefit evaluation and without a strategy that included a specific role for UAVs. The border agency claimed that the Predator drones would function as a “force multiplier.” Yet CBP offered no research indicating that UAVs would indeed increase the efficiency of Border Patrol agents or result in higher rates of drug seizures and apprehensions.
Over the past eight years, CBP has steadily expanded its UAV 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, unverifiable CBP statistics about drone-related drug seizures and immigrant arrests, and congressional presentations by OAM’s chief Michael Kostelnik marked more by anecdotes and assertions than by facts.
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.
The OIG report 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 didn’t have the staff or infrastructure to support its expanding fleet of Predator and Guardian 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.” Specifically, the OIG found that CBP had not initiated the planning processes to ensure “resources need to support its current aircraft inventory.”
Although CBP’s annual budget and the supplementary authorizations for border security did cover the basic purchase price of new UAVs, the agency kept purchasing Predator and later Guardian drones even though OAM didn’t have the personnel, budget, or infrastructure to operate the UAVs. 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 such as FEMA and the Forest Service when CBP responded to request 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 has frequently 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 ask Kostelnik about the finances for 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 about drone deployment. On the one hand, CBP routinely insists that UAVs 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, 2011congressional hearing, Kostelnik mentioned that OAM took one of its Guardian Predators 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 its 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.
Without an overall strategy, “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:
1. Drone usage fell drastically short of OAM’s own “mission availability threshold” (minimum capability) and its mission availability objective, 37% and 29% objective.
2. 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 usage level that fell far short of the planned minimum.
3. CPB has run its drone program in violation of its own operational standards, lack 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 was getting 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.”