Candice Miller, the Republican chair of the House Border and Marine Security Subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee, is effusive in her praise of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), referring to the drones at a March 15, 2011, hearing on Capitol Hill as "fantastic technology" that have proved "incredibly, incredibly successful in theater."
As the new chair of the subcommittee that oversees the air operations of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Miller has become one of the leading Congressional advocates of increased domestic drone deployment. Miller is a member of the House Unmanned Systems Caucus, which works to increase drone use and open US airspace to UAVs.
Over the past few years, Texas Republicans - most prominently Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. John Cornyn, and Congressman Michael McCaul - have been the among the leading high-profile proponents of drones for border security. Democratic Party politicians also generally share the mounting enthusiasm in Congress for this high-tech fix for border security.
Neither the high price tag for the Predator and Reaper drones - $20 million apiece - nor the inability of CBP to offer any substantive documentation of their successful deployment deters Congressional drone boosters.
In support of the department's use of drones for border security, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials routinely assert that drones are a "force multiplier" and that UAVs form an essential part of the "technological pillar" of border security. Congressional drone boosters commonly echo and amplify these DHS claims.
Yet, DHS assertions about the success, value and worth of drones in border security operations suffer a widening credibility gap six years after Predator drones first started patrolling the southwest border. UAVs may, as Miller states, be fantastic technology.
The purported achievements fall more into the realm of pure fantasy.
DHS has steadily expanded its drone fleet, and Congress has offered more cheerleading for drones than oversight. Due diligence and accountability are nowhere to be found.
What makes this absence of proper oversight and good management especially shocking is that the waste, inefficiency and strategic blunders of the drone escalation mirror the monumental failures of the SBInet "virtual fence" project - the other major DHS venture into high-tech border security.
CBP, which has eight drones in its UAV fleet with another two projected to be delivered by early 2012, projects a 24-drone fleet according to its strategic plan. Congressional members, alarmed about an array of perceived border threats, have pressured CBP to quickly increase its drone fleet and patrol areas despite CBP acknowledgements that it lacks the capacity and personnel to deploy the drones it already has.
Multiplying the Border Force
Since the inclusion in 2003 of immigration and border security agencies within the DHS, CBP has increasingly adopted a military lexicon to describe its operations. That makes sense since, for the first time, CBP had an explicit security mission - as evident in the wholesale adoption of the term "border security."
Over the past six years, CBP has spent more than $2 billion to create a "technological pillar" for border security. The other two border security pillars are personnel (Border Patrol and CBP agents) and infrastructure (mainly the border fence).
The two main components of CBP's new technological border security are the "virtual fence" project (first known as SBInet and now called the Alternative Technology Plan) and UAVs. In both cases, one from the ground and the other from the air, surveillance technology monitors stretches of the border and intelligence analysts attempt to determine if the received data includes evidence of illegal border crossings.
In both cases, CBP promotes these high-tech surveillance programs as "force multipliers." That's a Department of Defense term meaning a "capability that, when added to and employed by a combat force, significantly increases the combat potential of that force and thus enhances the probability of successful mission accomplishment." The claim, then, is that UAVs increase the capability of the Border Patrol by increasing the effective scope of their patrols. The ostensible logic of the force-multiplying effect of UAVs is persuasive, just as the CBP assertion that the virtual fence functions as a force multiplier has been presented as common sense - that technology enhances productivity.
One problem with the force-multiplier argument for border drone deployment is that DHS has never provided any data to support the assertion. The other main problem is that DHS probably cannot supply this supporting data because it is simply not true. UAVs might be better described as being manpower-intensive rather than force multipliers. At any time, it is more likely that CBP drones are sitting on US military bases along the border rather than serving as the Border Patrol's "eyes in the skies."
Why is that? Numerous reasons. Bad weather, including cloudy conditions and winds, is a common explanation. Another is that CBP and its Office of Air and Marine (OAM) lacks the personnel to operate the drones.
Attempting to explain why it is so challenging to get drones in the air, General Kostelnik, who as OAM chief directs CBP's drone program, expressed his frustration with preconceived notions about the unmanned character of UAVs:
We're not flying to the full potential, not because of aircraft or airspace limitations, but because we're still building the force. We're still growing the crews....
We are all here talking about unmanned. The real issues have nothing to do with the unmanned part. The real issues are all about the manned piece, and this is a manpower-intensive system.
The manpower-intensive character of UAVs, observed Kostelnik, is especially true for "the remotely piloted ones like the Predator." As the retired general explained, the Predators require two pilots for any one mission, but also large teams to handle launching and grounding. The manpower crunch obstructing more Predator patrols is also due to all the analysts required to do the "intel kind of things" with the steady stream of images transmitted by the drones.
Despite all the emphasis by CBP on the force-multiplying advantages of UAVs, neither Kostelnik nor anyone else at CBP has offered any public description of exactly how much "manpower" drone missions require.
Although UAVs have the capability of flying as much as 20 hours, most missions apparently average about ten
hours, while the many training missions are still shorter.
During the same subcommittee meeting, Kostelnik was asked to give members some idea of the number of crew members required for a drone mission. According to Kostelnik, a typical drone mission requires three crews in addition to the two pilots - one handling navigation and the other directing the sensors - to handle launching, landing, and recovery.
But what makes UAV missions so "manpower-intensive" is the data management and analysis associated with the stream of images flowing into the control centers. "Taking the data takes more people," explained Kostelnik, and the "data that comes out of our aircraft is now sent to processing, exportation, and dissemination cells."
This complex data input component of UAV surveillance is what Kostelnik, using military jargon, called a "distributed infrastructure" that complements the command control centers on military bases where the pilots and aviation crews work. Another five full-time people are necessary, noted Kostelnik, to "tell the sensor operator where to look and the pilot where to fly."
The OAM chief estimates that there could be 50 people involved in a typical drone mission.
Without even taking into account the number of Border Patrol agents deployed in planes, helicopters and ground vehicles, the OAM chief estimated that UAVs depend on teams of 50 or more. Counting those agents that hunt down suspected illegal border crossers, it's likely that more than 100 Border Patrol agents and other support staff would be involved in any one UAV surveillance incident.
Although CBP officials have repeatedly testified in Congress about the progress and success of the drone program, the CBP has not produced any hard information about the numbers of men and women involved in a typical UAV-driven border arrest or drug seizure.
Drones may be, as Congressman Miller says, a "fantastic technology." But that doesn't mean that they are a "force multiplier" as DHS repeatedly asserts.
Even if DHS could demonstrate that the Predators reduce the number of Border Patrol agents needed to effectively patrol US borders, the DHS should still be required to justify the $20 million it spends for a Predator and its control system. If it were a responsible steward of government revenues, it should provide data showing that drone surveillance is at least as effective as surveillance by manned light aircraft or by Border Patrol officers on the ground.
Yet, none of the numerous Congressional DHS oversight committees have demanded such an accounting from DHS and CBP, and DHS has ramped up the border drone program without undertaking such a cost-benefit evaluation.
One reason for this lack of due diligence is the boyish enthusiasm in Congress and among border politicians for this new technological toy in their border security playground.
Reporting for The Washington Post, William Booth brought attention to this uncritical drone boosterism.
"In his trips to testify on Capitol Hill," wrote Booth, "Michael Kostelnik, the retired Air Force general and former test pilot who runs the Office of Air and Marine for the CBP, said he has never been challenged in Congress about the appropriate use of domestic drones. "Instead, the question is: 'Why can't we have more of them in my district?' Kostelnik said."