Homeland Security Watchdog Recommends Grounding Border Drones

Chuck Ross Investigative Reporter
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Drones used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) were in the air only 22 percent of the time they were initially planned to fly and covered only nine percent of the length of the border they were intended to monitor.

Those are two of the findings in a report released Tuesday by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General entitled “CBP Drones are Dubious Achievers.”

In the report, the inspector general recommends shuttering the $443 million drone program — which has been in place since 2004 — and putting the funds to better use.

According to the report, in fiscal year 2013 it cost Customs and Border Protection $12,255 per hour to operate a drone. That includes equipment, overhead and salaries and is five times the $2,468 per-hour cost the Office of Air and Marine initially projected.

Drones were also being used far less often and covered a far smaller area of land than initially planned.

CBP’s Office of Asset and Marine initially set a goal of 16 flight-hours per day for 365 days of the year. But the inspector general found that drones were often grounded due to weather and to a lack of resources and were in the air only 22 percent of that allotted time.

Drones also accounted for only two percent of apprehensions of illegal border crossers, the report found.

Of 275,392 apprehensions in 2013, drones helped in only 2,272.

And though the unmanned aircraft were initially supposed to conduct surveillance along the entire 1,993 mile Southwest border — from Texas to California — the inspector general found that they were mostly limited to a 100-mile stretch of land in Arizona and a 70-mile parcel in Texas.

That left approximately 91 percent of the border uncovered.

“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,” the report reads.

“Notwithstanding the significant investment, 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,” DHS Inspector General John Roth said in a press release. “Securing our borders is a crucial mission for CBP and DHS. CBP’s drone program has so far fallen far short of being an asset to that effort.”

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