A review by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has found that DHS has limited capabilities to counter the malicious use of drones.
Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), commonly referred to as ‘drones,’ present an emerging threat as their popularity grows. Terrorists, criminal organizations, and lone actors have used drones for malicious purposes and will continue to do so.
In a September 5, 2018 press release, “Rethinking Homeland Security in an Age of Disruption”, the then DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen remarked, “Terrorists are using drones on the battlefield to surveil and to destroy. Drug smugglers are using them to monitor border patrol officers so they can slip into America undetected. And criminals are using them to spy on sensitive facilities. Drones can also be used to disrupt communications and or to steal data on nearby Wi-Fi.”
In November 2018, Nielsen issued an internal memorandum calling for a uniform approach to DHS’ expansion of its counter drone capability under the Preventing Emerging Threats Act. She assigned the Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans (Office of Policy) as the Department’s lead over components with authorized counter drone missions (United States Secret Service, United States Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, and Federal Protective Service).
The then Secretary instructed these components to not take any actions toward counter drone expansion until the Office of Policy completed a uniform approach for doing so. However, the Office of Policy did not execute a uniform approach as directed because it did not request the funding needed to obtain subject matter experts to fulfill all of the Secretary’s requirements for the uniform approach, including developing a realistic work plan and issuing complete department-wide counter drone guidance.
As a result, DHS components were prevented from expanding and unifying their capabilities as permitted by the Act. For example, the Secret Service continued operating a counter drone capability for its protective mission and the Coast Guard did not expand its capability beyond its DOD maritime escort mission.
DHS officials told OIG that funding for counter drone expansion unsuccessfully competed with other mission priorities for budget resources.
In its response to the FY 2020 DHS Appropriations Bill Technical Assistance Request, the Office of Policy identified a need for specific subject matter experts to guide its counter drone expansion across six lines of effort:
- policy development;
- interagency coordination / driving implementation;
- requirements, research, development, and testing and evaluation;
- operations coordination;
- external training, education and engagement; and
- program management.
However, inadequate funding prevented the Office of Policy from obtaining the subject matter experts it needed to fulfill all of the Secretary’s requirements for DHS’ counter drone expansion, including developing a work plan and issuing department-wide counter drone guidance. As such, OIG found that the Office of Policy relied on detailees who did not possess the technical expertise needed to facilitate DHS’ counter drone implementation. According to Office of Policy officials, their office did not possess the full complement of skills needed to drive progress and ensure department-wide coordination of counter drone activities.
OIG’s review found that while the Office of Policy issued counter drone policy guidance on September 10, 2019, this was incomplete. Although the guidance referred to six annexes specifying processes and procedures DHS components authorized to conduct counter drone operations should follow to ensure program uniformity and consistency, the annexes were missing from the document.
To address the shortcomings, OIG has made four recommendations to the Under Secretary for Strategy, Policy, and Plans at DHS:
- Identify budget requirements and convey those requirements to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer (OCFO) for consideration as identified in the Secretary of Homeland Security’s memorandum dated November 8, 2018.
- Conduct an objective workforce analysis of the counter drone Program Management Office to determine the appropriate staff needed to accomplish the office’s mission cost-effectively.
- Develop a timeline with achievable goals for counter drone capability implementation across the Department.
- Complete the Secretary’s Counter Unmanned Aircraft Systems Policy Guidance, including the annexes specifying processes and procedures that DHS needs to conduct counter drone operations and ensure program uniformity and consistency.
The Office of Policy did not concur with OIG’s overall report conclusion but did concur with the four recommendations and stated it has already taken steps to meet them.
The Office of Policy said approximately $5 million is required annually to support nine full-time equivalent staff and operating funds. The Office of Policy submitted this requirement to the OCFO on April 5, 2020. It added it will also scope and execute a workforce analysis tailored to meet requirements, in line with the second recommendation, which it expects to complete by April 30, 2021. The Office of Policy is also expected to complete work to meet the third recommendation by the same date. Finally, it stated that as of May 12, 2020, it had completed three of the six required annexes, and was coordinating the remaining three draft annexes through the department-wide clearance processes. All six annexes are estimated to be completed by December 31, 2020.