Paying particular attention to the effectiveness of the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in maritime security operations, at a hearing Tuesday examined what Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Office of Air and Marine (OAM) is doing to interdict maritime threats before they arrive on shore or in US ports and to increase understanding of illegal networks exploiting maritime domains.
“The need for maritime domain awareness, or the ability to understand where illicit traffic is most likely to occur, cannot be understated,” said House Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security Chairman Candice Miller (R-Mich.). “Without this understanding, drugs will continue to transit the maritime corridors and migrants will make the perilous journey to this country. Radar coverage of theGreat Lakes, and other areas along the border, is far from complete, which could allow low flying aircraft and vessels to move drugs and other contraband with ease.”
Key witnesses at the hearing included Randolph Alles, Assistant Commissioner of CBP OAM, and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General John Roth.
Securing maritime borders presents unique challenges. Thousands of vessels enter or operate in US territorial sea daily. Though the vast majority do so for purposes of recreation or legitimate commerce, a small percentage engage in smuggling and other illegal activity. Apprehending these smugglers can be daunting, as many mimic legitimate traffic while others elude detection altogether.
Furthermore, small vessels inbound to the United States are generally not required to announce their arrivals in advance, nor are they required to make their initial landing at a designated port of entry. There is also no requirement to continually broadcast their position via transponder.
To support the agency’s mission of securing maritime borders while maintaining the lawful flow of people and goods entering the United States, CBP OAM utilizes advanced maritime and aeronautical assets with rapid and effective interception, pursuit, and interdiction capabilities.
Specifically, Predator B unmanned aircraft systems have provided critical enhancements to CBP OAM’s air, land and maritime border domain awareness and capabilities. UAS provide high-endurance intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance of land borders, inland waters, littoral waters and high seas with multiple advanced sensor arrays. They bring to the maritime environment an increased ability to effectively detect, monitor and track both personnel and conveyances involved in illegal activity.
Roth testified CBP has been unable to demonstrate how much the agency’s UAS program has improved security. Roth said from Fiscal Years 2005 to 2013, CBP invested about $360 million on its Unmanned Aircraft System, which includes Predator B aircraft, related equipment such as ground control stations, as well as personnel, maintenance and support.
However, as previously reported by Homeland Security Today, a 2014 DHS Inspector General (IG) audit found after spending “hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars” over 8 years on its drone initiative, CBP “has yet to prove the value of its UAS program while drastically understating the costs.” Nor can CBP “demonstrate how much the program has improved border security.”
The IG recommended CBP “abandon plans to spend $443 million more on additional” drones and “put those funds to better use.”
The key findings of the IG’s audit report were that anticipated usage of the aircraft was significantly lower than expected, there were no performance metrics to measure the effectiveness of the program and CBP did not know the true cost of the program.
CBP’s Concept of Operations in 2010, which described the characteristics of the proposed system, anticipated there would be four 16-hour patrols every day of the year, totaling 23,296 hours. The actual logged hours amounted to only 5102, which is 80 percent less and equated to 1.4 hours per day.
CBP also anticipated UAS support would increase apprehensions. According to the UAS Mission Need Statement, “This investment expects to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and safety of Border Patrol agents … by reducing response to false motion sensor alerts, increasing the number of apprehensions of illegal border crossings, and raising the agent’s situational awareness when moving towards and making arrests.”
In the Tucson and Rio Grande Valley Sectors where UAS operations were concentrated, Border Patrol reported 275,392 apprehensions; yet, CBP attributed only 2,272 of those apprehensions, or less than 1 percent, to the UAS program. Moreover, according to Border Patrol agents and intelligence personnel the IG interviewed in Arizona, Border Patrol indicated they probably would have detected the same people using ground-based assets without the assistance of unmanned aircraft.
CBP OAM also expected unmanned aircraft to reduce border surveillance costs by 25 to 50 percent per mile. However, the IG determined that because OAM does not track this metric, it cannot demonstrate UAS have reduced the cost of border surveillance.
In analyzing the cost of unmanned aircraft, the IG wanted to know how much it cost to own, operate and maintain the aircraft and sensors. The IG estimated that in FY 2013 it cost at least $62.5 million to operate the UAS program, or about $12,255 per flight hour. CBP’s estimate of the cost of operating the aircraft were significantly lower because it did not include full maintenance costs, depreciation, operations support, base overhead and CBP OAM personnel.
“Given the cost of the UAS program, as well as its current lack of performance measures, we believe CBP’s decision not to expand the program at this time is a wise one,” Roth said.
Roth told lawmakers several other audit reports have highlighted the need for a renewed focus on management fundamentals. Consequently, Roth concluded, “The department, CBP and OAM have taken steps to implement our recommendations, yet OAM’s basic management practices continue to fall short. Sound planning and strategies for efficiently acquiring, using and maintaining aviation assets that operate at full capacity, for example, would go a long way toward improving overall operations.”
CBP OAM’s defense of the UAS program for maritime security
Despite Roth’s testimony, Alles argued the integration of UAS has provided critical enhancements to OAM’s air, land and maritime border domain awareness and capabilities.
Alles pointed out that UAS “Allow us to see the border … recognize where we don’t need technology and personnel because nothing is occurring. Helping to reduce and provide efficiency across the department. No wasted money on assets in areas nothing is occurring.”
However, both Roth and Miller called for improved metrics for gauging the performance of CBP OAM’s activities, particularly in regards to the UAS program.
“This subcommittee and committee has been on record multiple times calling for robust border security metrics that measure the state of border security,” Miller said. “They are largely absent in the border security debate, and a valuable tool to help CBP deploy resources appropriately or come to Congress with additional needs.”
“Finding the right set of metrics to gauge performance is not an easy task, but it must be done,” Miller added.
OAM admitted there is need for relevant, verifiable performance measures and has initiated an effort to develop them. This is a new process for the agency, whereby it has engaged a federally-funded research and development center to assist in developing metrics particular to domain awareness. The plan is to refine a methodology for developing such measures and apply it to the concerns the IG brought up, as well as a continued working relationship to rectify the deficiencies.
Despite these deficiencies, Alles said there have been a number of indicators of success. OAM efforts resulted in the seizure of significant quantities of contraband and disrupted considerable illicit activity before it reached our shores. In FY 2014, OAM conducted 90,739 flight hours and 42,859 underway hours, resulting in the arrest of 4,725 suspects, the apprehension of more than 79,672 illegal migrants, the seizure of 763 weapons, $147,805,097 in currency and the interdiction of more than 1,155,815 pounds of illegal drugs, including 155,143 pounds of cocaine.
When asked by Miller to explain the department’s plans for performance measures and accountability, Alles admitted to CBP struggles withmetrics. However, in his closing statement he explained, “OAM is working on something that has never been done before, how do you characterize aircraft support? How do you characterize the effectiveness of an aircraft for surveillance, how do you put a dollar value on that?”