Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Predators on Our Borders

Predator drones are patrolling the borders, hunting for illegal border crossers and payloads of smuggled marijuana. By 2015 the Department of Homeland Security intends to have the northern and southern land borders, as well as U.S. maritime borders, fully monitored by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).   

Most Predators are deployed by the U.S. military and CIA in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. But outside these shooting wars UAVs – also known as Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs) – Predators are increasingly being regarded by DHS as part of its high-tech strategy for border security.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the DHS agency that includes the Border Patrol, claims that its UAV program focuses operations on the CBP priority mission of anti-terrorism by helping to identify and intercept potential terrorists and illegal crossborder activity.”

But the assertion that the UAV program is driven by CBP’s priority mission of counterterrorism has not been supported by the short history of UAV deployment since 2004 and is certainly not supported by the results of the aerial surveillance. Occasional news releases from CBP about its UAV program cite the number of illegal immigrants and pounds of seized marijuana.

Homeland Security’s UAV initiative is moving steadily forward bolstered by an array of supporters of high-tech instruments of border security. In Congress and along the border, politicians such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry and congressional members such as Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) and Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.) are increasingly vocal about the need for UAV surveillance, mirrored on the northern border by North Dakota’s Democratic senators Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad.

The newly formed Congressional UAV Caucus is also putting new legislative weight behind the effort to increase the role of UAVs in homeland security and overseas military operations. Howard “Buck McKeon,” the Republican congressman who represents the San Diego-area district that is home to Predator manufacturer General Atomics is the leading voice of the new congressional caucus and a regular beneficiary of company-sponsored international trips to promote UAVs.

For its part, the UAV industry not only counts on individual company lobbying and campaign contributions but also on the new industry association called the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems Association. Also helping is the UAV National Industry Team (UNITE), formed in 2002 to promote expanded UAV use. Its leading members are General Atomics, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman.

But it is not as if DHS has been reluctant to deploy UAVs in pursuit of border security. Since 2004 Customs and Border Protection has enthusiastically backed UAV operations, just as it has unreservedly supported the high-tech SBInet. DHS has also joined DOD efforts to persuade the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to open national airspace to UAVs.

Not only is DOD integrating UAVs into military operations but it also eager to put its expanding UAV fleet directly to use in homeland security operations.

The enthusiasm for UAV deployment in homeland security – particularly border security – operations has not been tempered by the obstacles and problems associated with UAVs, including high crash rates, airspace constraints, high cost, and lack of focus on high-priority targets when used for intelligence rather than attack.

Like SBInet, the UAV program of CBP, which is run by the agency’s Office of Air & Marine, is proceeding without adequate oversight, with no cost/benefit evaluation, in apparent contradiction with the agency’s professed “risk-based” mission, and without any defined border security strategy. What is more, CBP has not yet produced the documentation to back its claim that its UAV program is a “force multiplier” – meaning that it enables Border Patrol to do a better job with fewer agents.

Eyes in the Sky

The U.S. Border Patrol began considering the utility of UAVs in the late 1990s, about the same time it began deploying the first electronic surveillance system. But it wasn’t until after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 – and the flood of new funding for border security through the newly created DHS – did CBP’s UAV program really take off.

Today, CBP has a fleet of six Predators, with another scheduled for acquisition in 2010. Manufactured by the San Diego-based General Atomics, the Predator UAV includes a sensor system provided by Raytheon. While some UAVs are on automatic pilot, most of the UAVs used for border security and for strictly military operations are remotely piloted, relying on satellite relays to communicate.

Before purchasing its first Predator in 2005, CBP in 2004 and 2005 experimented along the southwestern border with two other drones – the Israeli-made Hermes and Northrop Grumman’s Hunter – as part of its Arizona Border Control Initiative.

Both experiments were deemed successful, although the criteria used to judge the program were not specified. CBP merely cited the number of immigrants arrested and pounds of drugs captured as evidence of its success. CBP noted that the Hunter drone contributed to the apprehensions of 287 illegal immigrants and the seizure of 1,900 pounds of marijuana. Quickly following these UAV pilot projects CBP began the operational use of the first Predator in October 2005.

Seven months later after it began flying, CBP’s first Predator crashed, apparently due to pilot error. The April 2006 Predator crash was a reminder of the high crash rate of UAVs – 100 times higher than manned aircraft. The Air Force recently acknowledges that more than one-third in its UAV fleet has crashed to partially explain its high number of new UAV orders.

According to a May 2008 review of DHS’ UAV program by the Congressional Research Service:
“Because UAV technology is still evolving, there is less redundancy built into the operating system of UAVs than of manned aircraft and until redundant systems are perfected mishap rates are expected to remain high. Additionally, if control systems fail in a manned aircraft, a well-trained pilot is better positioned to find the source of the problem because of his/her physical proximity. If a UAV encountered a similar system failure, or if a UAV landing was attempted during difficult weather conditions, the ground control pilot would be at a disadvantage because he or she is removed from the event. Unlike a manned pilot, the remote pilot would not be able to assess important sensory information such as wind speed.”
Thus far DHS’ UAV program functions as a joint undertaking with the DOD, which allows DHS to use its bases in the borderlands for UAV command centers and has also assisted DHS in accessing airspace. There appears to be no official count of DHS UAVs, but CBP news releases indicate that there are three Predators at Ft. Huachuca/Libby Army Airfield in Sierra Vista, Arizona, a military town southeast of Tucson and close to the border town of Douglas. In addition, CBP has two Predators at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota.

The latest Predators – called Guardians by the CBP -- purchased by CBP are slated for sea duty. The sixth CBP UAV will patrol the Caribbean while another one scheduled to come on line in 2010 will watch over the Gulf of Mexico. CBP says will ultimately be used to patrol off the coasts of Central America and Mexico.

The CBP Asst. Commissioner for the Office of Air and Marine operations, Michael Kostelnik, said, “With the introduction of the Guardian, maritime variant of the Predator B, DHS now has a powerful tool and force multiplier to increase maritime domain awareness and confront threats to our borders.”

According to CBP, the UAV command center at the Grand Forks Air Force Base will have a $2.7 million annual budget and will employ nearly 50 federal employees and contractors. The northern deployment of UAVs by DHS at the Grand Forks command UAV command center will also benefit from the nearby DOD Center of Excellence for UAV Education, a joint undertaking of University of North Dakota, DOD, and corporations like Lockheed Martin that are developing the UAV military and homeland security markets.

By 2015 CBP says it expects to employ the Predator across the entire southern and northern border regions operated by UAV ground command stations across the country. 

Next: The Border UAV Lobby 

Photo: Predators Awaiting the Hunt at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona

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