Report: Border patrol drone effort spends hundreds of millions on nothing

U.S. Customs and Border Protection drone in its most frequent location -- the ground
Credit: U.S. CBP

Drones owned by consumers can be so intrusive that a woman in Federal Way, Wash., filed a lawsuit charging her neighbor with "drone stalking." Waves of complaints have been filed in San Francisco, Hawaii, a range of beaches and elsewhere about the invasion of privacy from what amounts to a flying camera zipping through private yards, balconies.

Ordinary people may be having trouble getting away from drones made for consumers, but the border patrol is having trouble getting sophisticated military drones anywhere near bad guys, according to a report today from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the Dept. of Homeland security.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has spent eight years and "hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars" but drastically understated the actual cost of the drones and has yet to prove that its fleet of Predators is worth even the cost that it admits to.

The OIG's report recommends that border patrol drop plans to spend another $443 million on even more Predators and, instead, "put those funds to better use."

This is the second time an OIG audit slammed CBP, its fleet of drones, its ability to report what it costs to fly them and even the things it claims the drones are doing.

During 2013, for example, CBP "touted drone surveillance of the entire Southwest Border," 1,993 miles of often rugged, empty country running from California to Texas.

The majority of the Predator flights were alone one 100-mile long stretch of border in Arizona and another, 70 miles long, in Texas, the report said.

That may just be apple polishing – a little exaggeration to emphasize the value of drones that patrol the 8.53 percent of the border that is critical to whatever the CBP things those drones are accomplishing.

The OIG's office thinks the Predators were in the air only 22 percent as often as they were supposed to be, and got credit for an assist in only 2 percent of the arrest of illegal border crossers.

A much bigger red flag waves from the section of the report discussing the cost and management of $20 million drones.

The border patrol division that runs the Predators is called the Office of Air and Marine (OAM). The OAM is also the group that does the Predator accounting, and reported during 2013 that it spent $2,468 per hour to operate each Predator. However, "OIG found the actual price tag to be $12,255 per hour, noting that OAM omitted such key costs as salaries for operators, equipment and overhead." None of those are the kind of inconsequential, esoteric pocket change that could easily be forgotten by patriots focusing all their attention on protecting freedom, not pinching pennies.

The costs the OIG report cited are all pretty large, pretty obvious expenses that are pretty routinely included in the accounting at organizations about which few people use the word "malfeasance."

The OIG didn't use that word. It also didn't use the word "incompetent," though it had to work pretty hard to avoid it.

The OIG did repeat its charge from the 2012 audit that the CBP doesn't focus a lot on process. It does things like buy its first pack of Predator drones without preparing any more thoroughly than they might have done if the vehicles they acquired were jeeps you can park and walk away from and not finicky, high-maintenance drones developed by the same Air Force that doesn't think it's a bad trade to do 30 hours of maintenance on an F-22 for every hour it spends in the air.

The CBP also forgot to make set criteria to decide what made a mission successful, metrics to demonstrate whether they'd met those criteria and supervisors trained in both the mission and in the operation and maintenance of the Predators.

Somewhat more fundamentally, the CBP had also failed to establish airfields sufficient and well equipped enough to launch and recover the drones, control them in the air and do all the maintenance required to get them back in the air eventually.

"On at least three occasions, NASOC Grand Forks could not conduct flight operations because maintenance could not be performed due to a lack of ground support equipment," the 2012 audit read.

By the time of the 2015 report, the CBP "still has no reliable method of measuring its performance and that its impact in stemming immigration has been minimal."

In an unusually frank dismissal of the CBP's efforts, Inspector General John Roth said in the report that, "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."

In the private sector that sentence would have been followed by a recitation of the members of the unit who were taking exciting career opportunities elsewhere.

It would be a long list.

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