January 7, 2015 by David Olive

DHS Inspector General John Roth dropped a powerful present on the front doorstep of Customs and Border Protection on Christmas Eve, one that was likely about as welcome as a lump of coal. The news of the report is just coming out this week and, as press coverage picks up, I hope it will build additional interest in scheduling congressional hearings on the subject. It is about time that a DHS official questioned the outrageous cost of the Office of Air & Marine’s (OAM) use of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as “drones.”

OIG Report Number 15-17, issued on December 24, 2014, called the DHS CBP Unmanned Aerial Systems “Dubious Achievers.” The report, officially titled, “U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Unmanned Aircraft System Program Does Not Achieve Intended Results or Recognize All Costs of Operation,” is a scathing refutation of OAM’s previous justification for using the fleet of Predator UAVs. Some of us have raised questions about the cost and effectiveness for several years.

In 2010, I had hoped the new Congress would ask those questions and look at whether the cost justified the benefit of having a UAV that was more suited for a warzone than for border surveillance. Now, four years later, another new Congress needs to be asking more direct questions since it appears CBP has been providing Congress and the public with cost numbers that the IG now says were a fraction of the true, actual costs.

According to the press release from the OIG during Fiscal Year 2013:

– OAM calculated that it cost $2,468 per hour to operate a drone. OIG found the actual price tag to be $12,255 per hour, noting that OAM omitted such key costs as salaries for operators, equipment and overhead.
– Flight time fell far short of OAM’s goal of 16 hours per day, 365 days per year. OIG found the drones, which were often grounded by weather, were airborne for only 22 percent of those goal hours.
– While CBP has touted drone surveillance of the entire southwest border (1,993 miles from Texas to California), the majority of deployment was limited to a 100-mile stretch in Arizona and a 70-mile segment in Texas.

Say what? The actual cost of operating the Predator was almost 500% greater than OAM calculated and with an airborne rate of 22% of the goal? What other questions should have been asked but weren’t?

The first question Congress ought to ask as it debates the FY15 Homeland Security appropriations bill is the one IG Roth answered in his report. CBP had planned to acquire 14 more Predator UAVs at a cost of more than $443 million. Should Congress continue to fund CBP’s request? Roth says, “No!”

“We see no evidence that the drones contribute to a more secure border, and there is no reason to invest additional taxpayer funds at this time,” he concluded. My hope is that congressional appropriators and CBP agree that it is time to ground the Predator fleet and put the money to better use.

Editor’s note: Customs and Border Protection published a detailed rebuttle to the IG’s findings, pushing back on some of the conclusions. Worth a read on the CBP website. Also, CBP Assistant Commissioner Randolph Alles published a letter to the editor in the Dallas Morning News, countering the IG’s calculations and conclusions.