David Olive

Sep 13, 2010

Following my recent posting concerning questions that ought to be asked about the cost-effectiveness of using the Predator for border enforcement purposes, I have heard from several people, and there have been a couple news stories focused on the same theme. Is it smart to deploy a very expensive air platform, like the Predator, no matter how much positive publicity the cool-looking airplane generates for border state politicians?  

This morning, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation will hold a field hearing in North Dakota titled, “The Integration of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs) into the National Airspace System (NAS): Fulfilling Imminent Operational and Training Requirements.”

Witnesses from the FAA, the Air Force, the National Guard and the Office of the Secretary of Defense will testify. Notably absent is anyone from the Air and Marine Operations Division of Customs and Border Protection.

This hearing will likely focus on the continuing problems that UAVs can potentially cause to manned aviation and, in particular, under what circumstances the FAA will provide a waiver of its “sense and avoid” requirements. MITRE has done some notable work in this area, although others have worked to address this potential problem as well.

It is not an insubstantial problem, particularly for the Department of Homeland Security because DHS does not have the same military mission or advanced technology that DOD can operate. Even the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has weighed in recently questioning the safety and efficiency of UAVs for domestic purposes.
But the underlying premise of whether it is “smart” to fly UAVs (like the Predator) for border surveillance missions has NOT been addressed – and it ought to be.

The Congressional Research Service released a report in June, 2010, that should have raised a lot of congressional eyebrows, but has not done so yet. In addition to the significant cost of the Predator itself, CRS said:

“According to the CBP Inspector General, the costs of operating a UAV are more than double the costs of operating a manned aircraft. This is because UAVs require a significant amount of logistical support and specialized operator and maintenance training. Operating one UAV requires a crew of up to 20 support personnel. Additionally, the use of UAVs has resulted in fewer alien apprehensions per flight hour than the use of manned aircraft.”

While the CRS report also points out that technology developments might allow UAVs to be operated at lower costs than some CBP aircraft (such as Blackhawk helicopters and P-3s), it appears we are a long way from that time. In the interim, some estimates, including one done for the Air Force about operational costs “in theater,” show that operating a high altitude UAV like the Predator may run as high as $7,000 per hour – significantly higher than the use of smaller manned aircraft operated by experienced Border Patrol and AMO pilots.

The CRS report also questions the effectiveness of the Predator, but the report does not even come close to asking the deeper questions about how the Predator stacks up against other detection methods. A UAV expert, without disclosing sensitive capability information, told me that the Predator is almost useless unless there is someone or some other technology to tell it what to look for. If this is true, and I have no reason to disbelieve it, then AMO officials ought to be asked some thorough questions about the total operational costs of owning and operating the Predator.

Against this backdrop, and the belief that DHS has been under strict orders to find significant cost savings (perhaps as high as 10 percent for the FY12 budget submission), it really does seem that questions need to be asked about why there is a love affair with the Predator and similar high-altitude, multi-million dollar platforms.

Who on the Hill or inside DHS is willing to step up and ask those questions?

This piece was on Security Debrief.


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