Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Predators on Border, Hawks in Mexico

(First in a new Border Lines series on UAVs on the border.)

No doubt that drones can kill.  By stepping up the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in its foreign wars, the Obama administration has amply demonstrated the war-fighting value of Predator drones.  

Military targets are destroyed without directly risking U.S. lives.  Yes, collateral damage – nontargeted individuals -- is routine. But that’s war and for the Pentagon and the White House an accepted consequence of war, especially in this new age of technological warfare.

The Obama administration has not only dramatically increased the deployment of UAVs in the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense have also dramatically escalated drone operations along the U.S.-Mexico border and within Mexico. 

The deployment of drones – Predators, Guardians, and Global Hawks – in border security and drug war operations hasn’t left a wake of collateral damage.  In part, that’s because the drones are not armed but used only for surveillance.

Other than the immense cost of the drones, there is little evidence that these high-tech border security and drug control operations have any impact at all. Nonetheless, the Obama administration and Congress keep increasing drone deployment along the border and in Mexico.  

Recently, DHS added three more Predators to its UAV fleet, even though it has failed to demonstrate the effectiveness of drone surveillance. What is more, DHS doesn’t have the sufficient funding or trained personnel to operate its current fleet of seven drones, which mostly remain parked at military bases.

The U.S. military – which hosts the drones on its bases in California, Florida, Arizona, and Texas -- is closely involved in the UAV operations of DHS.

In addition to participation in border security, which are authorized under its domestic defense and international drug control mandates, the Pentagon is also flying UAVs into Mexico as part of its collaboration with the Mexican military in the drug war.  These are Global Hawks, manufactured by Northrup Grumman, while the Predators (called Guardians when used for marine surveillance) that DHS flies along the border are products of General Atomics.

Border hawks hailed the announcement of more drones but continue to insist that many more UAVs are needed.  In August Governor Rick Perry asserted that increased UAV deployment will “provide real-time information to help our law enforcement” and thereby “drive the drug cartels away from our border.”  

Texas border hawks like Perry and congressional representatives Henry Cuellar (D) and Michael McCaul (R) argue that with its 1,234-mile border with Mexico, Texas needs more than a couple of drones to secure the border. DHS doesn’t disagree. The Air and Marine Division of the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency projects the eventual deployment of 24 UAVs.  

DHS argues that the UAVs are a “force multiplier” in that they allow the Border Patrol to increase its “operational control” of the border without adding thousands of additional agents.  Congressman Cuellar, who represents a border district including Laredo, says, “The addition will further allow CBP to receive precise, real time surveillance, allowing the deployment of fewer agents in a specific area, while intercepting drugs, human smuggling and acts of terrorism.”

Neither Cuellar nor DHS offer any evidence to support these claims.  Yet even if the drones did function as a force multiplier and did provide “precise, real-time surveillance” that decreased illegal border crossings, the high cost of this high-tech solution for border security raises questions about the advisability and viability of the drone border security program.

The close ties that congressional proponents of UAV deployment with the UAV industry raise other questions about the credibility and integrity of the leading UAV advocates. Congressman Cuellar is co-chairman of the 50-member Unmanned Systems Caucus, whose co-chairman is Cong. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), who represents the southern California San district were drones are manufactured. 

See related:

Fallacies of High-Tech Fixes for Border Security, CIP International Policy Report, at:

Bring the Drones In: Reyes and Homeland Security, at:

Join Border Wars Policy Group to follow/discuss border security, immigrant imprisonment, and drug policy issues at: 

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