Friday, February 26, 2010

Border Drone Payload -- Marijuana at $70K a Pound, But Immigrants Come Cheaper

The Border Patrol points to the increasing number of arrests and amount of drugs seized as evidence of UAV benefits.

In promoting expanded UAV deployment, CBP has downplayed widely acknowledged concerns about UAVs such as their high failure rate and their limited access to U.S. airspace. Instead of assessing the appropriateness and effectiveness of its UAV program, CBP instead highlights how its aerial surveillance has contributed to stopping illegal border crossers and illegal drugs from entering the country – categorized broadly by DHS as “dangerous people and goods.”

The Predator – whose latest version is called the Reaper by the Pentagon -- has proved most valuable in search-and-destroy military missions rather than in intelligence missions (mainly because of the huge amount of nontargeted video that must be processed and reviewed). In its Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, which projects potential UAV use over the next three decades, DOD says that the primary mission of the Reaper (latest version of Predator) – officially called MQ-9 --- is “to act as a persistent hunter-killer for critical time-sensitive targets and secondarily to act as an intelligence collection asset.”

However, Homeland Security uses Predators primarily for information gathering, not actually hunting. While their cameras do pick up the targets – mainly illegal border crossers – the UAVs can’t hunt them down. The images must be transferred by satellite to the command and control centers for processing by industry operators and Border Patrol agents.

Before the first Predator crashed, after 959 hours on patrol, it contributed to 1,793 arrests of illegal border crossers and the seizure of 200 pounds of marijuana.

As the number of Predators owned by CBP has increased and the UAV program has lengthened, those numbers have increased – rising to 3,900 arrests and 13,660 pounds of marijuana by March 2007 and by early 2009 more than 4,766 arrests and 22,823 pounds of marijuana. UAV flight time rose to nearly 2,000 hours by 2007 and more than 3,000 hours by 2009, according to the Border Patrol.

Per Unit Costs

At the price of $14 million, the UAV program cost U.S. taxpayers about $7,800 to catch each illegal border crosser.

(The $14 million figure is what DHS paid for its first Predator system. This price included a remote piloting team and other General Atomics support. But it does not include the costs of making the actual arrests and seizures, which includes the crews of Border Patrol agents, their vehicles, and often manned aircraft.)

Measured in terms of the confiscated marijuana, the UAV program cost U.S. taxpayers roughly $70,000 to help the Border Patrol seize each pound of the smuggled illegal drug.

Since 2005 the costs of the UAV program have steadily increased and the benefits have steadily decreased. The second CBP contract with General Atomics for two UAVs cost $34 million.

Despite having at least three more Predators deployed in the 2006-2008 period, the number of arrests and seizures aided by UAVs did not experience a corresponding rate of increase. Arrests doubled over the next three years, while seizures of marijuana increased about 175%.

In addition to the high cost of the arrests and seizures attributed to UAV assistance, what also stands out about CBP’s UAV program are two trends: 1) the only drug seized has been marijuana, and 2) the slow rate of increase in UAV operational time despite the higher number of UAVs.

CBP says it maintains a “risk-based” standard for its drug seizure operations. But in the case of the UAV program, the drones only aided Border Patrol agents seize the least harmful (indeed many medical and psychological experts assert that marijuana can  actually be beneficial when properly used) of illegal drugs.

Which makes sense, of course, since marijuana, being bulkier and also less valuable in the market, is routinely smuggled across the border by “mules” on foot, while more care and expense is generally given to smuggling heroin and cocaine using planes and vehicles legally crossing through ports of entry. (For more information on CBP’s “risk-based” drug seizures, see Immigrant Crackdown Joins Failed Wars on Crime and Drugs.)

During the lifespan of the first Predator at CBP, the drone flew nearly 1,000 hours, but with a fleet of at least three and as many as five drones over the next three years, flight time increased by only some  2,000 hours.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles with Little Air

The slow pace of increasing UAV flight time is not unexpected.

DHS has been wishing and hoping that the mounting combined pressure from DOD, UAV industry, congressional UAV caucus, and Homeland Security itself would result in the opening of more public air space to UAV deployments at home. As it is, the DHS use of UAVs relies on military bases for their command centers, military airspaces along the border, and special arrangements between DOD, DHS, and the FAA for flights that penetrate national airspace.

DHS says it is working closely with DOD and the FAA to “remove current flight restrictions on Border Patrol Southwest border operations” and its use of national airspace. One possible solution being explored by DHS’ Science & Technology division is to install sense and avoid capabilities on UAVs that would automatically redirect UAV flights away from other air traffic.

Among its other objectives, the Congressional UAV Caucus is pressuring for “UAV-friendly laws” that would permit UAVs to be deployed freely in national airspace.
DOD has taken the lead in the drive to change FAA regulations to allow UAV use. A DOD directive on Sept. 26, 2006 encouraged military nonarmed UAV support domestically for homeland defense and defense support of civil authorities. The Pentagon’s determination to introduce greater UAV use for nonmilitary use at home is evident in its FY2009-Fy2034 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap.

Until FAA, DOD, and DHS, and the UAV industry establish comprehensive guidelines for UAV use of national airspace, FAA and DOD are incrementally expanding UAV flight permission starting with the segregated airspace above military bases and extending to certain low-density airspaces such as the Arizona border. According to one assessment by a U.S. Army War College study, UAV are “increasingly ranging outside restricted military airspace as demand for a persistent airborne presence grows.”

Next: Mythical "Force Multiplier' of High-Tech Border Security

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