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‘CBP Drones are Dubious Achievers,’ Inspector General Report States

After Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has spent “hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars” over 8 years on its drone initiative, it “has yet to prove the value of its Unmanned Aircraft System program while drastically understating the costs.” Nor can CBP “demonstrate how much the program has improved Single Post Template - Magazine PRO Homeland Security Todayborder security.”

That’s the conclusion of a new audit report by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Inspector General (IG).

The IG audit report, Customs and Border Protection’s Unmanned Aircraft System Program Does Not Achieve Intended Results or Recognize All Costs of Operations, is the IG’s second audit of the program since 2012, and “found the effort by CBP’s Office of Air and Marine (OAM) still has no reliable method of measuring its performance and that its impact in stemming illegal immigration has been minimal.”

The IG recommended CBP actually “abandon plans to spend $443 million more on additional” drones and “put those funds to better use.”

“Specifically,” the IG’s report stated, “the unmanned aircraft are not meeting flight hour goals, and we found little or no evidence CBP has met its program expectations.”

The Inspector General’s office said it estimates it costs $12,255 per flight hour to operate the program, and that CBP’s “calculation of $2,468 per flight hour does not include all operating costs.” Consequently, the IG said, “By not recognizing all operating costs, CBP cannot accurately assess the program’s cost effectiveness or make informed decisions about program expansion. In addition, Congress and the public may be unaware of all the resources committed to the program.”

“As a result,” the IG reported, “CBP has invested significant funds in a program that has not achieved the expected results, and it cannot demonstrate how much the program has improved border security. The $443 million CBP plans to spend on program expansion could be put to better use by investing in alternatives.

The IG said it also found that, during Fiscal Year 2013:

  • OAM calculated that it cost $2,468 per hour to operate a drone, but the IG found the actual price tag to be $12,255 per hour, noting OAM omitted such key costs as salaries for operators, equipment and overhead.
  • Flight time fell far short of OAM’s goal of 16 hours per day, 365 days per year. The IG found the drones, which were often grounded by weather, were airborne for only 22 percent of those goal hours.
  • The IG stated that while CBP has touted drone surveillance of the entire Southwest Border (1,993 miles from Texas to California), the majority of deployment was limited to a 100-mile stretch in Arizona and a 70-mile segment in Texas.
  • Drone surveillance was credited with assisting in less than 2 percent of CBP apprehensions of illegal border crossers.

“Notwithstanding the significant investment, we see no evidence that the drones contribute to a more secure border, and there is no reason to invest additional taxpayer funds at this time,” said Inspector General John Roth. “Securing our borders is a crucial mission for CBP and DHS. CBP’s drone program has so far fallen far short of being an asset to that effort.”

The IG recommended “conducting an independent study before acquiring more unmanned aircraft, lift the limitations on radarsensor operations, establish attainable goals and performance measures and gather and report all program costs.”

CBP concurred with only one ofthe IG’s recommendations and concurred in principle with the remaining three.

CBP agreed with the IG’s recommendation that OAM revise its UAS CONOPS to include attainable goals for the program, along with verifiable performance measures.

CBP said OAM has already begun the process of revising its UAS CONOPS, which will include performance measures, and that it should be completed by March 31, 2015.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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