Audit: DHS Drone Program Ineffective at Border Security

Drones focus on only 170 miles of the southwest border

A U.S. Customs and Border Patrol drone aircraft lifts off, Wednesday, Sept 24, 2014 at Ft. Huachuca in Sierra Vista, Ariz.
A U.S. Customs and Border Patrol drone aircraft lifts off, Wednesday, Sept 24, 2014 at Ft. Huachuca in Sierra Vista, Ariz. / AP
• January 6, 2015 1:00 pm


Custom and Border Protection’s (CBP) drone program is ineffective and surveys less than 200 miles of the southwest border, according to an audit by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Inspector General.

The program operates 10 Predator B drones at a cost of more than $12,000 for every hour a drone spends in the air, funding which could be put to better use elsewhere, according to the OIG.

The program costs $10,000 more per flight hour than what DHS claims, according to the OIG.

"We estimate that, in fiscal year 2013, it cost at least $62.5 million to operate the program, or about $12,255 per [flight] hour," the audit said. "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."

"Although CBP’s Unmanned Aircraft System program contributes to border security, after 8 years, CBP cannot prove that the program is effective because it has not developed performance measures," the audit, released on Christmas Eve, said. "The program has also not achieved the expected results."

The OIG found that the Unmanned Aircraft System program (UAS) has not met flight hour goals, and that DHS lacks evidence that drones have contributed to more border apprehensions.

"[U]nless CBP fully discloses all operating costs, Congress and the public are unaware of all the resources committed to the Unmanned Aircraft System program," they 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."

Drones have flown along the border 80 percent less than what CBP originally imagined of "four 16­ hour unmanned aircraft patrols every day of the year, or 23,296 total flight hours." In reality, drones were only in the air for 5,102 flight hours in 2013.

The CBP blamed the lack of drone flights on budget constraints.

The government has already spent $360 million on the program since 2005, and DHS hopes to add 14 more drones at a cost of $443 million. However, the OIG said the agency has not proved the program deserves to be expanded.

"Given the cost of the Unmanned Aircraft System program and its unproven effectiveness, CBP should reconsider its plan to expand the program," the audit said. "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 drones, which can fly for 20 hours at a speed of 276 miles per hour, are operating on a small section of the 1,993-mile southwest border, contrary to the government’s claims.

According to the audit, drones only focused on 100 miles of the Arizona border and 70 miles of the Texas border. DHS claimed in their annual report ending in 2014 that they had "expanded unmanned aircraft system coverage to the entire Southwest Border."

However, CBP drones are sometimes in use elsewhere, including Cocoa Beach, Fla., Grand Forks, N.D., and Sierra Vista, Ariz.

Drones were also responsible for only 1.8 percent of apprehensions in the Tucson, Ariz. region, and a mere 0.7 percent in the Rio Grande Valley.

"According to border patrol agents and intelligence personnel in Arizona, USBP probably would have detected the people using ground-based assets, without the assistance of unmanned aircraft," the audit said.