The continuing rise of Predator drones at home has been fueled by the bizarre merger of military influence in domestic affairs and the key role of border hawks in the politics of immigration reform. DHS's early decision to tap generals involved in the military's own controversial overseas drone program to shape and direct the domestic drone program points to the increasing merger of the post-9/11 homeland security/border security complex with the military-industrial complex.
Drone proliferation at home will likely increase from a multibillion-dollar spending surge to boost "border security" as a result of congressional proposals to reform immigration policy.
At home and abroad, drone proliferation has benefited from a broad bipartisan consensus about the purported success of the US military's foreign deployment of Predator drones in counterterrorism operations by the Pentagon and intelligence apparatus. Drone proliferation at home is closely linked to military and CIA enthusiasm for what are formally called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or simply unmanned systems.
DHS decided - with virtually no reviews or evaluations - to purchase unarmed versions of the Predator drones used abroad for "signature strikes" (targeted drone killing). The department, whose mission includes "border security," has also relied on military bases along the land border and coastal waters to host its own drone fleet.
Since DHS began acquiring Predators, along with Predator variants called Guardians, from General Atomics nine years ago, this domestic drone program has proved an abysmal failure - whether measured by its effectiveness in immigration enforcement, drug control, or counterterrorism. A series of reports by the General Accountability Office, Congressional Review Service, and the DHS Inspector General’s Office have documented the paltry achievements, the alarming strategic confusion, and near-systemic logistical and technical shortcomings of the DHS drone program.
These government reports pointed to the complete absence of any cost-benefit evaluations and efficiency assessments of the DHS drone program.
Yet these official reviews failed to shed any light on the department’s controversial decision to deploy only the hugely expensive military-grade Predator drones and to enter into sole-source contracts with General Atomics to provide, maintain, and even operate the federal government's domestic drone fleet.
Nor did they probe the decision by DHS to hire military men to run the domestic drone program, despite their total lack of experience in law enforcement, border control, drug control, and immigration enforcement. Instead, from the start, DHS brought in generals with a history of procurement and management of the military’s killer drones to hunt down immigrants and illegal drugs with Predator drones.
The continuing rise of Predator drones at home has been fueled by the bizarre merger of military influence in domestic affairs and by the key role of border hawks in the politics of immigration reform. The decision early on by DHS to tap generals involved in the military's own controversial overseas drone program to shape and direct the domestic drone program points to the increasing merger of the post-9/11 homeland security/border security complex with the military-industrial complex.
Drones in Immigration Reform's Proposed "Border Surge"
Congressional proponents of immigration reform have included repeated references to their commitment to provide dramatically increased aerial surveillance of the southwestern border by Department of Homeland Security drones.
Prominent immigration reform advocates such as Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Cong. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) insist that "continuous" and "24 hours, seven days a week" drone surveillance is a fundamental condition of successful immigration reform. Yet these and other border drone advocates don't point to the achievements of the current DHS program. Rather, like Cuellar, they point to the purported success of the US military's antiterrorist drone program.
"We gotta have efficiencies, effectiveness, accountability on how they're used," he said. "But again, keep in mind, look at the history how they've been used extremely well in the military," said Cuellar, who cochairs the Congressional Caucus on Unmanned Systems, commonly known as the "Drone Caucus."
The DHS drone program is run by the Office of Air and Marine (OAM), a division of the Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which also includes the Office of the US Border Patrol.
Prior to 9/11 and DHS's creation, the Border Patrol and the US Customs Service (the legacy agency that became ICE), the various Border Patrol and US Customs sector offices mainly tapped their planes and boats to do what these agencies have traditionally done, namely apprehended unauthorized immigrants and seize illegal drugs. Under OAM, the actual operations remain largely the same, although now framed in a new security, counterterrorism context. According to CBP, the mission of OAM is "to detect, interdict, and prevent acts of terrorism and the unlawful movement of people, illegal drugs and other contraband towards or across the borders of the United States."
OAM boasts that it "is the most experienced operator of Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the Homeland Security mission set on the world stage."
OAM currently has a fleet of 10 Predator and Guardian drones manufactured by General Atomics. The OAM strategic plan calls for a fleet of two dozen drones by 2015 - a goal that seemed unlikely to be reached given budget-cutting and the abysmal performance record of the OAM drones.
CBP Contract with General Atomics
The first and signature initiative of the newly created OAM was to enter into a collaborative venture with General Atomics for unmanned Predator drones for border security operations - the first of which was deployed from Ft. Huachuca Army Base in Sierra Vista, Arizona shortly after the founding of OAM. In April 2006, this first CBP Predator crashed and was totaled in the Arizona desert due to a control error by the remote piloting team contracted from General Atomics.
Since 2005, when CBP deployed its first major drone, the UAV program of DHS has been the subject of mounting concern and criticisms from the government's own oversight and research agencies, including the Congressional Research Service, the Governmental Accountability Office, and the DHS's own Office of Inspector General.
In addition to the types of questions about worth and efficiency noted above, CBP/OAM has failed to adequately answer the following questions:
Why it so quickly decided that a drone fleet was necessary for border security?
Why it decided that the Predator UAV was the best fit?
Why it has continued the exclusive relationship with General Atomics despite the dubious accomplishment of these expensive military-developed drones?
In November 2012, CBP did sign a sole-source contract with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems to provide maintenance and operating crews for its current contingent of UAVs and to purchase as many as 14 additional drones. But there was little hope that the money could be found until drones became a core component to the "border surge" advocated by Sen. Schumer earlier this year.
Whether at home or in South Asia, Predators get special treatment by the federal government, benefiting from sole-source, no-bid contracts. In October, DHS signed a new sole-source contract with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. The $443.1 million five-year contract includes $237.7 million for the purchase of up to 14 additional Predators and Predator variants, and $205.4 million for operational costs and maintenance by General Atomics teams.
CBP insists that there is only one "responsible source" for its drone needs and that no other suppliers or servicers can satisfy agency requirements for these $18 million drones.
In a November 1 statement titled "Justification for Other than Full and Open Competition," DHS contends that General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.'s (GA-ASI) knowledge of the production, operation, and maintenance of the MQ-9 [Predator] is so unique that a transition of OAM UAS equipment to a UAS other than the MQ-9 or support services to a company other than GA-ASI would notably impact the CBP UAS program," including "appreciably impacting national security through decreased interdictions of contraband (e.g., illegal narcotics, undocumented immigrants)."
Homeland Security and Border Security Merge with Military-Industrial Complex
In recent years, major military contractors have dominated DHS' top 25 contractors. In 2011, for example, the leading DHS contractors included (in descending order) Raytheon (ranking No. 1), Northrup Grumman, Lockheed Martin, SAIC, European Aeronautical Defense and Space Company, SAFRAN, L-3 Communications, Booz Allen Hamilton, General Dynamics, and Defense Support Services.
Other large military contractors among the top 25 DHS contractors include International Business Machine, Bollinger Shipyards, and Huntington Ingalls, as well as several Native Alaskan Corporations that serve as fronts for military contractors, including Kodiak Support Services, Chenega Corporation, and Arctic Slope Regional Corporation.
Since DHS began operations in 2003, Boeing - notorious in the border security context for being the prime contractor of the mightily flawed "virtual fence" - has been the single largest DHS contractor, with more than 800 DHS contracts amounting to a cumulative $86.4 billion in homeland security contracts. Boeing follows Lockheed Martin as the top DOD contractor.
Money is what fuels the military-industrial complex. Yet in probing DHS's close relationship with General Atomics and the department's persisting commitment to aerial surveillance by military-grade drones, more than dollars are at work.
CBP's successive choices of two retired major generals to direct OAM point to DHS determination to reorient traditional border control operations into a strategic military framework.
What is more, the choice in 2005 of retired Air Force Major General Michael Kostelnik to direct the newly created Office of Air and Marine, followed by the choice of retired Marine Major General Randolph Alles to succeed Kostelnik in January 2013 signaled the CBP's conviction that UAVs should play a central role in continuing the post-9/11 missions of "homeland security" and "border security."
Toward the end of their military careers, both Kostelnik and Alles played critical roles in drone development and contracting for the Air Force and the Marines.
The Predator is Born and Bred
Looking back at the Air Force's close relationship with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems sheds light on why the company received its first orders for nonweaponized drones from CBP. It may also help explain why CBP conceived its drone program as part of a military-like strategy to secure the border using the much-vaunted ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) capabilities of Predator drones.
Missing from the official narrative about sole-source, no-bid contracts for its Predator drones is an accounting of the personal and institutional relations that have shaped the DHS program. The back-story of DHS drones is fascinating. It is also instructive, and helps explain why CBP was willing to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on drone operations that have proved spectacularly unsuccessful - whether measured either by number of terrorists caught (none) or by the relatively insignificant number of immigrants apprehended and pounds of illegal drugs seized, or by the logistical, technical, and management failures highlighted in the GAO and Inspector General reports.
Congressional pressure, industry lobbying and influence peddling, and the CIA's and the Air Force's enthusiasm for Predator drones all contributed to the CBP's decision to partner with General Atomics to launch its Predator drone program in 2005.
Not to be ignored, however, is the central role of Ret. Major General Michael Kostelnik, who was hired by CBP in 2005 to manage its newly unified air and maritime assets. Prior to becoming the CBP assistant commissioner in charge of OAM, Kostelnik played a major role in Air Force armament acquisitions, including a central role in the Air Force's development of the Predator.
For CBP, having a career military man direct its new air and marine division may have seemed entirely appropriate given the shift to a more militarized concept of border control after 9/11, with border policy shifting from border control to border security.
Rather than keeping its air and maritime assets supervised separately by each Border Patrol sector chief, CBP had created one unit, and it needed a commander to direct national operations along the country's land and sea borders.
From the beginning of his tenure, Kostelnik served as the lead CBP official to promote and defend the drone program in the media, public forums, and congressional hearings. Within the OAM, however, Kostelnik's enthusiasm for Predator drones wasn't well received by many traditional pilots, who have seen their flight time cut and the budgets for traditional aviation shrink.
When Kostelnik took control of OAM, he was a longtime supporter of the Air Force's program to prepare for drone warfare. As military acquisitions chief, Kostelnik, played a key role in promoting the UAV development program within the Air Force, especially supporting General Atomics in its work to weaponize its RQ-1 UAV.
Part of this inside story is set forth in a report written by Richard Whittle for the Mitchell Institute of the Air Force Association. Titled the "Predator's Big Safari," the report describes how the Air Force worked closely with General Atomics, first to produce the Predator as the premier intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance drone, and then as a "hunter-killer" with a Hellfire missile payload aboard.
The Predator drone deployed by CBP to meet its post-9/11 "homeland security" and "border security" missions is a product of the military-industrial complex. General Atomics, a southern California military contractor, developed the Predator as part of a 1993 Pentagon initiative called the Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration program.
Kostelnik started following the development of the Predator in the mid-1990s in his positions as director of special programs in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology and as executive secretary to DOD's Special Access Program Oversight Committee.
In the late 1990s, during the onset and killing of the Balkan Wars, Kostelnik, who had become commander of the Air Armament Center at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. As Air Armament Center commander, Kostelnik was a central figure in the General Atomics/Air Force project to "weaponize the Predator."
In 1995, Kostelnik watched a video streamed by General Atomics to the Pentagon from a test exercise of the Predator at Fort Huachuca, Arizona - where four CBP Predators are currently based. Soon afterward, Kostelnik visited the General Atomics development facility in southern California, where he met with the company's president, retired Rear Adm. Thomas J. Cassidy, and personally observed a Predator test flight.
Fixated on developing UAVs as weapons, Kostelnik later called Cassidy, according to the Air Force history of the Predator's development:
"I've got an idea about using your aircraft," Kostelnik told Cassidy. "I think it can carry a small bomb. What do you think?"
"You'll hardly believe your good fortune," replied Cassidy, "We've already been working on it."
The Air Force deepened its interest in weaponizing the Predator following an Air Armament Summit that Kostelnik helped organize. The March 2000 summit, which included a presentation by Kostelnik's deputy commander, Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Sullivan, brought together company presidents, directors of research, and other division chiefs to discuss the Air Force's armament plans.
Initially, Kostelnik and his deputy promoted the idea of arming the Predator with small smart bombs. The US military was at the time deploying unarmed Predators for ISR operations in the Balkans. Kostelnik, among others in the Air Force, pressured the Air Force to provide funding to General Atomics to arm the Predators - as they soon did, but with Hellfire missiles, not with smart bombs as originally proposed.
The relationship that had been consolidating between General Atomics and the Air Force since the early 1990s was mediated and facilitated in Congress by influential congressional representatives, led by southern Californian Republican Representative Jerry Lewis, a member of the House Appropriations Defense Committee and vice chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Lewis, a favored recipient of General Atomics campaign contributions, used his appropriations influence to ensure that the Air Force gained full control of the UAV program by 1998. Lewis has received $10,000 every two years in campaign contributions from General Atomic's political action committee - $80,000 since 1998, according to the Open Secrets website.
Under Kostelnik's direction, the Air Combat Command assumed management of the Predator development program. Since he took over CBP's aviation operations, Kostelnik has directed CBP to enter into sole-source contracts with General Atomics. The OAM chief told the Defense Systems Journal that "he needed to look no farther than the Predator UAS - a system with which he had been involved from its earliest days as a classified program." That vastly reduced CBP's risk in procurement, said Kostelnik.
Aside from Kostelnik's usual (albeit highly dubious) assertions about the Predator's significant cost advantages over manned aircraft and "unique performance advantages" (including its capacity to perform "a very select group of high-risk mission sets"), the OAM chief touts the seamless interoperability with the DOD in the event of a national security emergency, noting that the CBP Predators and Guardians could easily be switched to DOD control.
Kostelnik repeatedly boasted that OAM created the world’s first and the largest nonmilitary drone fleet. "We're a law-enforcement air force," says Kostelnik, although "increasingly in our aviation and maritime capabilities . . . we're operating DOD-like equipment. But we're doing it not for defense missions; we're doing it in the homeland."
Kostelnik not only played a key role in the development of the armed Predator for global hunter-killer missions, he also became the DHS point person in the integration of the newly established homeland security operations with traditional national security missions.
Even when Kostelnik was still at OAM, CBP said that Kostelnik was unavailable for an interview, and the agency declined to comment on the OAM director's historical relationship with General Atomics.
Warfighting Commander Takes Control of CBP Drone Program
For eight years Major General Kostelnik was the face and voice of the DHS drone program. Having retired at year's end in 2012, Kostelnik passed the directorship of the program to Major General Randoph Alles.
The January 2013 appointment of Randolph Alles to replace Kostelnik underscored DHS' commitment to manage its border control mission within a military framework of national security.
Alles is a relatively unknown figure within CBP. He joined the agency in March 2012 as second-in-command to Assistant Commissioner Kostelnik, serving as deputy assistant commissioner at OAM.
Alles finished his 35-year career in 2011, serving concurrently as commander general of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory and vice chief of naval research. In his capacity as commander of the Warfighting Lab, Alles was the point person for the Marine Corps in the inter-military squabble to secure UAV development budgets and war-fighting commands.
The spat that pitted the Air Force against the other armed branches highlighted the Pentagon's mad rush into the age of drone surveillance and warfare. The intensity of the rivalry and the duplication of drone development and acquisitions - which preceded 9/11, but intensified in the following years - underscored the extent to which the Pentagon and the military are too often driven more by competition over funding and weapons systems than by their national security mission.
The extent to which this inter-military squabble over the drone budget - one of the few parts of the DOD budget that was increasing, and moreover, rising rapidly - influenced the DHS decision to expand into drone surveillance and to enter into sole-source contracts with General Atomics can at this time only be speculated.
However, in assessing the focus, performance, and operational prioritization of CBB/OAM and the DHS border security mission, it is helpful to review the background of the OAM chiefs, especially given their prominent roles in drone warfare and drone development and acquisitions.
With respect to Alles, it is instructive to recall his testimony before the House Armed Services committee in 2007, in which he advocated for separate and even duplicative UAV development and deployment strategies for the various military branches.
As commander of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, Alles directed Marine planning to "improve expeditionary warfare capabilities across the spectrum of conflict." In his role as Warfighting Laboratory chief, Alles was in charge of the corps' development and acquisition of "various aspects of advanced technologies."
In his prepared statement, Alles defended the decision by the Marine Corps to proceed with his own drone development and operational program and objected to the Air Force proposal that it be the "executive agent" for military UAVs. "The Marine Corps opposes the idea that any one service should control the procurement or employment of these valuable assets," said Alles, addressing the Air Force contention that the Army and Marine Corps shouldn't be contracting for research, development, and procurement that the Air Force had already initiated in the mid-1990s with the Predator project of General Atomics.
Arguing that "efficiency does not imply effectiveness," Alles told committee members that the Marine Corps needed three tiers of UAVs in varying sizes to be effective at all levels of combat, even though these UAVs may nearly duplicate drones being acquired and deployed by other military branches, particularly the Air Force.
The most prominent example of duplication and questionable effectiveness was the production by General Atomics of nearly identical UAVs for the Air Force, DHS, and the US Army. At the same time, the Air Force and DHS contracted General Atomics to develop and manufacture armed and unarmed UAVs called Predators, the US Army had contracted General Atomics to develop and produce Sky Warrior UAVs.
The differences between the Predators and Sky Warriors (later renamed Grey Eagles by the Pentagon) are akin to the differences between different models and grades of the Toyota Sienna - featuring the same basic design structure, but differentiated by motor size and the number of Hellfire missiles as part of its "payload."
Frustrated by the squabbling over drone funding that set the Air Force against Alles and Navy and Army officials, subcommittee chairman Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) blurted: "Who's in charge? Where is the authority?"
More than the prestige of the various military services was at stake then. It's a matter of money, lots of it. In 2013, the Pentagon is set to spend $5.78 billion for research and procurement of unmanned systems, while DHS is moving ahead with hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts with General Atomics and other drone manufacturers.
What was true then - about no part of the military or intelligence community being in charge of drone research, procurement, and strategy - remains true. At that time, a Government Accountability Office representative told Abercrombie (currently Hawaii's governor) that no one in the Pentagon was exercising effective control over the competing drone initiatives of the military services - even when these programs involved essentially the same type of drones and the same manufacturer.
"This is a longstanding problem in the acquisition process," observed Michael Sullivan, GAO's director of acquisition management issues. "It is the stovepipe nature of our services."
Alles dismissed such concerns as being overly driven by efficiency benchmarks. Rather, the primary concern should be: "If we are not effective, then all of the money spent on us is a waste. So I think we have to look at it in those terms and whether in fact we are achieving the effectiveness we want, given that we attain some efficiency."
As critics of both DOD and DHS regularly observe, efficiency and mission effectiveness aren't fundamentally counterpoised, which Alles suggested in highly assertive congressional testimony in 2007. Today, both the efficiency and the effectiveness of the DHS border programs, especially its high-tech operations, are being increasingly questioned. As OAM chief, Alles may be obligated to reformulate his earlier argument for increased drone spending, despite questions about inefficiency and waste resulting from duplicative programs.
A highly critical May 2012 report by the GAO, titled "Border Security: Opportunities Exist for More Effective Use of DHS's Air and Marine Assets," took OAM to task for both its effectiveness and efficiency - as well as lambasting the agency for it egregious failure to have performance measures in place.
Militarized Border Surge Needs Review
Only a thoroughgoing congressional investigation into the origins, corporate ties and management of the UAV program by CBP could penetrate the veil of unaccountability and nontransparency that currently block serious scrutiny of the OAM's drone operations and acquisitions. Any investigation would also need to push its way past the profusion of military jargon favored by CBP officials to justify and describe DHS drone operations.
Speaking in support of the immigration reform bill called the"Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act,'' passed in the Senate, John McCain boasted that the bill would make the US-Mexico border the "most militarized border since the fall of the Berlin Wall."
This proposed border surge, including the plan to more than double the DHS Predator/Guardian fleet will prove a boon to General Atomics and other military contractors that constitute the core of the military-industrial complex. In doing so, the ever expanding post-9/11 homeland security/border security industrial complex will increasingly merge with the post-World War II military-industrial complex.
Yet the proposed border surge in high-tech spending isn’t responding to demonstrable security threats or remotely associated with the counterterrorism mission of the Department of Homeland Security. Instead, the border and the entire "homeland" will be subject to more drone surveillance as a product of the strange bipartisan politics of immigration reform.
With Predator drones flying overhead and an array of new high-tech ground surveillance systems, the "border surge" also constitutes the frontline of the expanding surveillance state at home.