CRASH AND BURN: Border Drones Cost 6X Estimates, Work 1/5 The Hours, Want More Money

The border patrol is looking to more than double its investment in surveillance drones, even though it lacks performance measures and cost controls for its existing program.

In a C-SPAN interview on Monday, Department of Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth claimed that a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) drone program is costing “about six times what CBP told us [it would],” despite logging only about 20 percent as many flight hours as projected.

After the apparent success of a 2004 pilot program, CBP implemented the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) program in 2005, with initial funding of $360 million for the purchase, maintenance, and operation of 11 drones (two of which have since crashed). (RELATED: FAA Poised to Miss Deadline on Drone Regulations)

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CBP defends the program as “an important addition to its toolbox,” saying the drones are an effective deterrent to illegal immigration, but Roth counters that the agency has no way of knowing whether that is true.

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“The difficulty we saw is that when they initiated the program, they didn’t put any performance measurements in place … so they can’t tell whether the program is a success or not,” Roth told C-SPAN, adding that such measures are crucial for a responsive, efficient government. (RELATED: Download This App and Track Every US Drone Strike in Real Time)

Roth’s criticisms stem from a report released by his office in December, which determined that, “CBP cannot accurately assess the program’s cost effectiveness or make informed decisions about program expansion,” and warned that as a result, “Congress and the public may be unaware of all the resources committed to the program.”

Despite those shortcomings, in 2012 CBP officials proposed increasing the UAS budget by about $443 million to allow for the purchase of 14 additional drones, saying they would allow the agency “to respond to major events anywhere in the United States within three hours and provide first responders with real-time information and imagery.”

If carried out, the expansion would increase the total cost of the UAS program to more than $802 million, yet the IG report states that even at its current size, “the program has not achieved its expected level of operation.” (RELATED: Pervy Nerds Get Their Hands on a Drone and Use it Just How You’d Expect)

For instance, while the program’s original goal was to log 16 flight hours per day, every day of the year, the aircraft were airborne for just 22 percent of that time over the course of FY 2013.

Moreover, “the unmanned aircraft are not operating along the entire southwest border of the United States, as DHS has reported,” limiting their ability to plug surveillance gaps and reduce ground-based surveillance costs.

The program’s relatively limited use has not translated to lower costs, though. The IG report calculates that the program cost $12,255 per flight hour to operate in 2013— significantly more than the $2,468 estimate provided by CBP, which excluded operating costs such as the costs of pilots, equipment, and overhead.”


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