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Audit: Border drones costly, infrequently flown

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Audit: Border drones costly, infrequently flown

  • A Predator drone operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Air and Marine from an airfield at Ft. Huachuca near Sierra Vista.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comA Predator drone operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Air and Marine from an airfield at Ft. Huachuca near Sierra Vista.

The drone program operated by Customs and Border Protection costs far more than the agency estimates, flies far fewer hours than it should, and helps in a fraction of apprehensions along the U.S-Mexico border, according to an audit of the program.

In a 34-page report released on Christmas Eve, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General found that after eight years, the program has not achieved results, flying for only about 20 percent of the time expected.

"Specifically, the unmanned aircraft are not meeting flight hour goals, and we found little or no evidence CBP has met its program expectations," said the report.

CBP originally said that the program would fly “four 16­ hour unmanned aircraft patrols every day of the year, or 23,296 total flight hours.” However, according to the audit drones were only in the air for 5,102 hours in 2013.

Because of this discrepancy, the OIG estimated that in fiscal year 2013, the program cost at least $62.5 million to operate — more than $12,000 per flight.

“The Office of Air and Marine’s calculation of $2,468 per flight hour does not include operating costs, such as the costs of pilots, equipment, and overhead," the report said.

"Unless CBP fully discloses all operating costs, Congress and the public are unaware of all the resources committed to the Unmanned Aircraft System program,” the report said. “As a result, CBP has invested significant funds in a program that has not achieved the expected results, and it cannot demonstrate how much the program has improved border security.”

In the Tucson Sector where four Predators fly from an airfield at Ft. Huachuca near Sierra Vista, officials attributed 2,161 apprehensions to the program in 2013, equivalent to less than 2 percent of the total apprehensions made that year.

The report also noted that flights along the 1,993-mile southwest border are often limited to 100 miles of Arizona's border and about 70 miles in Texas.

"According to Border Patrol agents and intelligence personnel in Arizona," the report read, "[agents] probably would have detected the people using ground-based assets, without the assistance of unmanned aircraft."

"Given the cost of the Unmanned Aircraft System program and its unproven effectiveness, CBP should reconsider its plan to expand the program," said the report. "The $443 million that CBP plans to spend on program expansion could be put to better use by investing in alternatives, such as manned aircraft and ground surveillance assets."

CBP disputed the audit's finding.

In a letter written to the inspector general, Eugene H. Schied wrote that "CBP has achieved or exceeded all relevant performance expectations."

"There have been countless successful CBP missions over the years in which UAS capabilities and resulting products have contributed significantly to the successful investigation, dismantling, and disrupting of criminal enterprises and organizations," Schied wrote.

He also noted that the agency's Predators had been used to collect information for federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

Schied also disputed the OIG's finding that the agency was planning to expand the Predator program.

While last year's failed immigration bill from the Senate required the agency to add four more Predators to southwest border, along with 6 additional radar systems for the aircraft, agency spokesman Carlos Lazo said the agency has no plans to expand the number of aircraft.

Instead, the agency is looking to replace a Predator that crashed in the ocean near San Diego in January 2014, Lazo said.

Additionally, Schied defended the program by noting that a Predator variant, called the Guardian, was sent to Central America four times to interdict drugs smuggled through the Gulf of Mexico. The interdiction effort seized  just over 7,000 pounds of cocaine in 2012. Schied also noted that in a feat "previously considered not possible" the agency operated a Predator from a public international airport.

The report also argued that the agency restricted the use of a radar system designed to detect people moving through the desert. The system called VADER or Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar was originally lent out to the agency in 2011 by the Department of Defense, but has since become part of the sensors used by Predators along the border.

However, Schied wrote that the VADER system "detected, identified, and classified 18,239 suspected undocumented aliens and smugglers" but these were not counted in the number of apprehensions because the Predator program is only credited with the seizure or apprehension if the drone stays on scene and pilots can confirm the result.

This isn't the first time that the Predator drone program has run into trouble during a government review.

In 2012, the OIG found that a lack of funding for the program meant that some of the drones were grounded because of a lack of support equipment in 2011 and that the agency lacked enough ground stations to safely fly.

According to CBP, Predators flew for more than 4,600 hours last year, helping to seize 992 pounds of cocaine and more than 70,000 pounds of marijuana. Predator missions also helped seized 149 weapons, and led to the apprehension and arrest of nearly 2,000 people.

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