David Olive

Aug 31, 2010

The announcement Monday afternoon by DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano that ,  funded in part by the latest $600 million infusion of cash from Congress, ought to raise some very serious questions about the manner in which increasingly limited homeland security funds are being spent.

Unfortunately for the American taxpayers, and the Border Patrol agents who are the alleged beneficiaries of this largess, it does not appear that those questions were asked before the earmark occurred or even before the current deployment was announced. And in my opinion, DHS continues to waste money on a UAV program that is overly expensive and grossly inefficient when compared to alternative approaches.

In its proper place, the Predator UAV can play a significant role in helping American warfighters. I feel certain that its manufacturer, General Atomics, can make a strong case for its use in armed conflict zones, and there are certainly several of those along the US-Mexican border, if current press reports are to be believed. I submit, however, that there are better alternatives that would achieve better results.

But for the single-mindedness of the head of CBP Air and Marine Operations, who reportedly has rejected any suggestions that DHS consider the capability of other, less expensive and more flexible unmanned aerial platforms (much less the additional capability of more manned airplanes or helicopters), I have serious doubts that a reasonable person would deploy Predators for border surveillance purposes. 

Yet Congressional myopia combined with DHS and CBP stubbornness has created a situation where alternative approaches seem to be ignored – a strange position to take for current DHS leadership in light of their other public announcements about reliance on alternative analyses of the proper “mix” of technologies and personnel for border enforcement and a rhetorical “efficiency review.”

OK, so hypocrisy is not illegal in Washington DC, or anywhere else for that matter. Still, it would be nice if DHS would not engage in charades. If DHS wants to deploy Predator B UAVs, then at least admit that Predators are far more expensive than almost every other alternative – or make the case why this is a better choice. Thus far, the explanations are lacking, and this should not be allowed to continue.

When Congress returns, or whenever GAO gets around to it, Secretary Napolitano should be required publicly to address these questions, at a minimum:

What is the operational cost (including personnel) of flying one Predator B UAV for a 24 hour shift and how does that compare with the cost of operating other aircraft in the CBP Air and Marine Operations existing fleet?

How many people does it take to operate the Predator UAV for a single mission?

How many people does it take to operate a Cessna manned aircraft for a single mission?

What additional capabilities does the Predator B UAV give to the Border Patrol that a manned Cessna aircraft does not provide?

– What additional capabilities do other CBP aircraft give to the Border Patrol that the Predator B does not?

– What is the cost of acquisition and a full year”s operation of one Predator B UAV, and what other UAV platforms could DHS acquire and operate to achieve the same or greater level of detection as a Predator B?

– For the cost of acquisition and a full year”s operation of one Predator B UAV, how many manned aircraft could DHS acquire and operate to achieve the same or greater level of detection as a Predator B?

– For the cost of acquisition and a full year”s operation of one Predator B UAV, how many Mobile Surveillance radar units could be acquired and operated by Border Patrol agents?

– What are the reasons that CBP has rejected the use of smaller UAVs for border detection and enforcement purposes?

– What are the approximate costs of UAVs that could be launched and operated by a single Border Patrol agent in the field?

– What is the annual cost savings, if any, to CBP by operating Predator B UAVs instead of other aircraft types?

I am sure there many other questions that could be asked – and I hope they are. These are the ones that immediately came to my mind.

The choice to deploy the Predator B UAV for border enforcement purposes is a mystery that needs to be addressed – unless effectiveness, efficiency and cost are not important these days to the Department of Homeland Security.

This piece was on Security Debrief.


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