After spending eight years and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has presented little to no evidence that its Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) program is achieving expected program results aimed at achieving a more secure border, according to a new report by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG).
Given the high cost of the UAS program and its unproven effectiveness, DHS OIG recommended that CBP abandon plans to spend $443 million more to expand the program, and instead put its limited funding to better use.
“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 report indicates that CBP guards nearly 7,000 miles of US land border and 2,000 miles of coastal waters surrounding Florida, Texas, and southern California. To fulfillthis mission, CBP developed the UAS program, which includes “Predator B aircraft, as well as ground control stations, pilots, sensor operators, video cameras, land and maritime radar, and communication equipment.”
DHS OIG maintains that the CBP UAS program does contribute to border security, but the program’s effectiveness remains unproven. Although CBP believes the expansion of the UAS program would result in increased apprehensions of illegal border crossers and reduce the cost of border surveillance, without established performance measures, CBP has little to no evidence that it is achieving these results.
“As a result, 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,” DHS OIG states. “In addition, unless CBP fully discloses all operating costs, Congress and the public are unaware of all the resources committed to the UAS program.”
DHS OIG specifically found that, during Fiscal Year 2013, it cost at least $62.5 million to operate the program, or about $12,255 per hour. The Office of Air and Marine’s (OAM) calculation of $2,468 per flight hour does not include operating costs, such as the costs of pilots, equipment, and overhead.
“By not including all operating costs, CBP also cannot accurately assess the program’s cost effectiveness or make informed decisions about program expansion,” DHS OIG said in the report.
In addition, there is little evidence that the significant funding devoted to the program is translating to more CBP apprehensions. The report indicates that drone surveillance was credited with assisting in less than 2 percent of CBP apprehensions of illegal border crossers.
Border patrol officers in Arizona, for example, indicate that ground-based assets—including Agent-Portable Surveillance Systems and Mobile Surveillance Systems, Unattended Ground Sensors, radar and camera towers—are sufficient to assist in apprehending illegal border crossers.
While OAM indicates that unmanned aircraft can decrease the cost of border surveillance by 20 to 25 percent, according to its mission statement, this metric is not tracked so there is no evidence that unmanned aircraft have decreased the cost of border surveillance.
DHS’ Annual Performance Report, Fiscal Years 2012–2014, asserts that the UAS program “expanded unmanned aircraft system coverage to the entire Southwest Border,” which covers 1,993 miles from Texas to California. However, DHS OIG indicates that in FY 2013, according to CBP, the majority of deployment was limited to a 100-mile stretch in Arizona and a 70-mile segment in Texas.
The report states that, “Although the Federal Aviation Administration permits OAM to fly over the southwest border from California to the Texas gulf coast, the unmanned aircraft focus on relatively small portions of the border.”
“Given that, after 8 years of operations, the UAS program cannot demonstrate its effectiveness, as well the cost of current operations, OAM should reconsider its planned expansion of the program,” states the report.