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Drones used to monitor the U.S.-Mexico border come at too high a cost for too little result, an audit found. (Photo: AP/Matt York)

Costly Border Drone Program Has Failed, Federal Audit Finds

Findings call into question impending $443 million expansion of program

Nadia Prupis

The multimillion dollar drone surveillance program at the U.S.-Mexico border has failed, an audit by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has found.

The program—which is due for a $443 million expansion—should be dismantled in favor of a more useful project, said DHS Inspector General John Roth.

After eight years in operation, the drone program has not achieved results, according to the audit, which was quietly released on Christmas Eve. The 34-page report (pdf) found that the unmanned aircrafts deployed along the 7,000 miles of border lands and 2,000 miles of coastal waters in Texas, Florida, and California monitored by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are flown roughly 20 percent of the time expected—at a much higher cost than reported.

In 2013, the drones were in the air a total of 5,102 hours, compared to a promised 23,296 hours. With a program cost of at least $62.5 million, those figures mean each flight that year cost $12,000 to operate. But even those numbers are estimates, and could well be higher, according to the audit.

"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," the report states. "By not including all operating costs, CBP also cannot accurately assess the program’s cost effectiveness or make informed decisions about program expansion."

The report continues, "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."

Those findings alone are enough to suggest the drone program should be disbanded entirely, particularly in the face of its possible expansion, Roth said. "Given the cost of the Unmanned Aircraft System program and its unproven effectiveness, CBP should reconsider its plan to expand the program. The $443 million that CBP plans to spend on program expansion could be put to better use[.]"

Tara Tabassi, national organizer with the War Resisters League, told Common Dreams, "At this point, the decade-plus Department of Homeland Security spending spree is simply too glaring to ignore, whether it be on drones, Fusion Centers or SWAT trainings. This is why we see renewed attempts to hide the real costs of programs that murder, control and repress: from reporting only a 1/6 of what it truly costs to maintain drone warfare, to the hardly known $500+ million grant program that strengthens police militarization, Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI)."

In addition to the high cost and low flight times, the program only covered a fraction of the thousands of miles of land and water assigned to CBP for monitoring. Roth, who called the drones "dubious achievers," said the majority of the deployments sent the aircrafts to a 100-mile stretch in Arizona and 70 miles in Texas.

Groundings were common due to flight restrictions and weather conditions, such as thunderstorms, high winds, and cloud covers, the report found—but those limitations alone are enough to discredit the CBP's and the Office of Airforce and Marine (OAM) long-term goal of unmanned aircraft operations 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Based on those agencies' own records, those goals are "unrealistic and not attainable," the report said.

Further, CBP and OAM often blamed their groundings on "budget constraints," despite their multimillion-dollar program cost.

"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," Roth said.

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