February 6, 2014 by David Olive

The Christian Science Monitor’s Tom Peter has added to the list of questions that Congress ought to be asking about the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) use of Predator unmanned aerial vehicles to provide border surveillance. His article, “Drones on the U.S. Border: Are They Worth The Price?” points out that it costs American taxpayers $3,200 per hour for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to operate the Predator for border surveillance activity. He also notes that the Predator requires one hour of maintenance for each hour that it is in the air.

What the article does not say – but congressional staff ought to know – is how the Predator’s cost stacks up against other alternative means of surveillance. I say they “ought” to know because DHS had an “Analysis of Alternatives” prepared several years ago that compares a plethora of technologies that can be used for surveillance purposes, including the existing CBP manned aircraft fleet. This “AoA” has not been made public, but it has been referenced so many times in congressional testimony that it “ought” to be available for policy makers to study.

Perhaps the problem is that decisions on what platform to use for border surveillance are not being made on the basis of risk-reward or cost-benefit. This seems to be what University of Texas-El Paso Professor Josiah Heyman (who specializes in border studies) implied when telling the Christian Science Monitor:

“As far as I can tell, the US government does not have a comprehensive risk-reward strategy for border enforcement…At each step I think that this stuff is driven by political process rather than by some kind of systematic risk assessment methodology.”

As an old Hill rat, I know that “political process” is what drives every decision Congress makes, and that is not always a bad thing. It keeps decisions close to the wishes of the majority of voters and the taxpayers who pay for the programs the Executive Branch operates. But when that political process is not “informed” by other factors, including a cost-benefit analysis, the taxpayers (and their representatives) ought to be asking questions – and there is no better question about CBP’s use of Predator UAVs than the one the Christian Science Monitor asks: are they worth the price?