Drones are proliferating.
First, the Pentagon joined with military contractors to breed fleets of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as airborne drones are formally called. Although major new drone species began emerging in the 1990s, the Bush administration's war on terrorism after the 9/11 attacks sparked a major surge of drone production and deployment - not only for reconnaissance, but also for military strikes against targeted terrorists.
The Obama administration dramatically increased the deployment of UAVs in the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa, underscoring the rising prominence of Predator, Guardian and Reaper killer drones in US war fighting and CIA covert operations.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Defense have also dramatically escalated drone operations along the US-Mexico border and within Mexico.
The Border Patrol had also been experimenting with drones in the 1990s. However, following the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and surge of funding for "border security," the newly created Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency launched an ambitious plan to deploy unarmed versions of Predator drones along the borders and coastlines of the "homeland" - as part of its new counterterrorism mission.
Like the other components of the border-security buildup - including border wall, virtual fence, doubling of agents - the new "eyes in the skies" have focused on traditional border control missions, namely immigration enforcement and drug war missions, rather than counterterrorism.
Recently, DHS added three more Predators to its UAV fleet, even though it has failed to demonstrate the effectiveness of drone surveillance. What is more, DHS doesn't have sufficient funding or trained personnel to operate its current fleet of seven drones, which mostly remain parked at military bases.
The US military - which hosts the drones on its bases in California, Florida, Arizona and Texas - is closely involved in the UAV operations of DHS.
In addition to participation in border security, which are authorized under its domestic defense and international drug control mandates, the Pentagon is also flying UAVs into Mexico as part of its collaboration with the Mexican military in the drug war. These are Global Hawks, manufactured by Northrup Grumman, while the Predators (called Guardians when used for marine surveillance) that DHS flies along the border are products of General Atomics.
Border hawks hailed the announcement of more drones, but continue to insist that many more UAVs are needed. In August 2011, Gov. Rick Perry asserted that increased UAV deployment will "provide real-time information to help our law enforcement" and thereby "drive the drug cartels away from our border."
Texas border hawks like Perry and Congressional Reps. Henry Cuellar (D) and Michael McCaul (R) argue that with its 1,234-mile border with Mexico, Texas needs more than a couple of drones to secure the border. DHS doesn't disagree. The Air and Marine Division of the Customs and Border Protection agency projects the eventual deployment of 24 UAVs.
DHS argues that the UAVs are a "force multiplier" in that they allow the Border Patrol to increase its "operational control" of the border without adding thousands of additional agents. Congressman Cuellar, who represents a border district including Laredo, says, "The addition will further allow CBP to receive precise, real time surveillance, allowing the deployment of fewer agents in a specific area, while intercepting drugs, human smuggling and acts of terrorism."
Neither Cuellar nor DHS offer any evidence to support these claims. Yet, even if the drones did function as a force multiplier and did provide "precise, real-time surveillance" that decreased illegal border crossings, the high cost of this high-tech solution for border security raises questions about the advisability and viability of the drone border security program.
The close ties that Congressional proponents of UAV deployment enjoy with the UAV industry raise other questions about the credibility and integrity of the leading UAV advocates. Congressman Cuellar is co-chairman of the 50-member Unmanned Systems Caucus, whose co-chairman is Congressman Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-California), who represents the San Diego district that is the home of General Atomics.
Yet, drone proliferation isn't confined to security - national, homeland, border - missions. The drone industry, together with the Congressional drone lobby, are also successfully promoting drones as must-have instruments for law enforcement - not only for federal agencies, but also for thousands of police and sheriffs departments throughout the nation. DHS and the Department of Justice have special promotional and funding programs to facilitate drone acquisition by law enforcement.
The following articles are part of a series of an ongoing series of articles on drone proliferation.