The CBP's drone squadron has been a tightly-held secret. Documents have been pried loose
by FOIA lawsuits, but it's pretty clear the DHS and the CBP would rather not discuss its flying surveillance technology. Not that the CBP drones are strictly for patrolling our nation's borders. They've been spotted far inland, being used by law enforcement agencies taking advantage of the CBP's drone lending library
Finally, more details on the CBP's drones have made their way into the public domain, thanks to an Office of the Inspector General report. [pdf link
] The information contained in this document points to two seeming contradictions, albeit the sort of contradictions often found in government agencies that run long on Congressional support but short on effective oversight.
We estimate that, in fiscal year 2013, it cost at least $62.5 million to operate the program, or about $12,255 per hour.
And they're worthless:
Given the cost of the Unmanned Aircraft System program and its unproven effectiveness, CBP should reconsider its plan to expand the program. The $443 million that CBP plans to spend on program expansion could be put to better use by investing in alternatives, such as manned aircraft and ground surveillance assets.
This table makes it completely clear how little this technology has contributed to safer borders.
The drone program began with the assumption that long-range eyes in the sky would be cheaper than running agents all over the place. Supposedly, the drones would be able to cover areas that wouldn't be feasible using humans and ground vehicles. The CBP has 7,000 miles of land borders and 2,000 miles of coastal waters to cover, but its long-range drones, for the most part, kept an eye on only two very small areas.
[A]ccording to CBP, in FY 2013 UAS operations along the 1,993-mile southwest border focused on about 100 miles of Arizona border and operations in Texas concentrated on about 70 miles of that state’s border.
The OIG found that the CBP's enthusiasm for drones far exceeded the agency's grasp. It envisioned nearly round-the-clock surveillance over large areas. It delivered minimal coverage for nearly $13,000/hour.
[T]he unmanned aircraft logged a combined total of 5,102 flight hours, or about 80 percent less than what OAM anticipated.
The OAM (CBP's Office of Air and Marine) blames budget constraints. It wants $443 million to acquire more drones and keep the ones it has airborne more often. But the OAM seemingly has no idea what its actual costs are, much less what it might need to reach its 16-hour-a-day goal. It underreported drone operating costs to the OIG by nearly $10,000/hour. And yet, it wants to be trusted with more money and more toys.
The Office of Air and Marine’s 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.
Even with 5,100 hours of flight time being logged, the eyes in the sky contributed to only 2,300 apprehensions. The CBP's ground forces made over 10 times as many apprehensions. An apprehension for every half-hour of flight time is a pretty good ratio (said here without any meaningful stats to compare it to), but that works out to about $6,000 per detainment -- hardly an indicator of efficiency.
The CBP argues that apprehensions aren't a good measure of the drones' value. It prefers to use "detections." All well and good, but even though that number is higher (18,239), the agency was unable to demonstrate to the OIG that there was a meaningful connection between what the drones "saw" and effective border enforcement. The OIG notes the CBP's objection, but still sticks with the lower apprehension measurement.
The CBP also claims drug seizures to be a better measuring stick of effectiveness than apprehensions, but even this self-selected metric is underwhelming.
The report also calls out the CBP for vastly misrepresenting the amount of area covered by its drones.
According to CBP, our statements that unmanned aircraft are not operating along the entire southwest border are inaccurate. CBP said OAM has authorization to fly, and has flown, the unmanned aircraft along every stretch of the southwest border, from California to the Texas gulf coast.
OAM provided additional flight hour information that showed 44.6 hours flown over California and 3.8 hours flown over New Mexico. The California hours involved an unmanned aircraft flying over that state to conduct missions over water off the state’s southern coast. We do not know what the 3.8 hours over New Mexico flight hours involved. OAM did not provide information that showed surveillance missions in either of these states.
We believe it is misleading for CBP to report that its unmanned aircraft operate over every stretch of the southwest border when these flights appear to be simply on the way to another mission.
It's not that drones are completely useless. It's that these particular ones are. Ars Technica quotes drone law expert Brendan Schulman
"Smaller drones, used in closer proximity to border areas, may turn out to be far more efficient and effective at this type of mission," he wrote in an e-mail. "The Predator is a very large airframe that is over a decade old. One of the recommendations of the report is to conduct a study on whether investments in alternatives, such as manned aircraft and ground technologies, might work better. Newer, low-cost drones that have been developed over the past year or two might be another alternative worth investigating."
The best thing the CBP can do at this point is drop its defensiveness about its underutilized (but overhyped) drone program. There is no doubt the agency will continue to use drones, but it needs cheaper and more agile technology. And while it's updating its fleet, it should also update its Privacy Impact Assessment. We know the FBI has yet to make its public
, and the CBP's current PIA makes no mention of its drone lending program -- nor does it require similar assessments from those it lends its fleet (and operators) to.
Drones will continue to be a part of border surveillance, but just because they're inescapable doesn't mean the CBP is justified in its insistence on throwing more money at a program that clearly needs a major overhaul.