Does the US-Mexico Border Really Need 24/7 Drone Service?

When it comes to securing one of the most volatile and heavily-trafficked borders in the world, it's not as simple as just throwing more Predators at the problem.

Jun 19 2013, 3:30pm
President George Bush and a CBP Predator, via Rhizome.

By now you've maybe heard a bit about the so-called Gang of Eight immigration bill being mulled over in the Senate. Among other things, the proposed legislation (.pdf) calls for total aerial-drone awareness of the US-Mexico border--this for a border-security complex that for years hasn't ever been able to get its shit together

Customs and Border Protection already sits on a fleet of seven unarmed Predator and three unarmed Guardian drones. When they're actually used (which is not too often compared to other means of "securing the border"), the Predators stay aloft for up to 20 hours at a stretch during five-day work weeks. If the Gang of Eight has its way, the 1,950-mile border would be watched by not only more Predators, but 24/7, 365-days a year.   

Not that we didn't see this coming, or anything. The reality, of course, is that drones, however defined, are as about as "good" as they are "really bad" at a seemingly infinite list of potential uses. So when it comes to securing one of the most volatile and heavily-trafficked borders in the world, is it really as simple as just throwing more drones at the problem?  

It isn't. 

Border drone surveillance carries a fat pricetag as is, for one thing. Should the Gang of Eight bill pass, droning the border would become that much more wildly expensive. An unarmed version of the notorious Predator goes for $18 million a pop, and runs up an hourly operational tab of $3,000. In other words, it would cost at least $26 million to keep a single spy drone aloft for 24/7. As I've reported here in the past, CBP brass, despite grumbling from its rank-and-file, has been pushing to expand its fleet from 10 to 24 drones. By my math, that comes out, to $624,000,000.   

How a Predator sees the border. Via MilitaryNotes

For another, when it comes to monitoring a border so heavily and historically criss-crossed by drug mules, druglords, and everyday folk in search of work, hulking drones like the Predator simply do not do a good job. According to a 2012 Center for International Policy report, surveillance drones, since they first were introduced along the US-Mexico border in 2006, can be credited with a whopping 0.001 percent of total borderland arrests. Of the 365,000 border apprehensions logged during fiscal year 2012, CBP spy drones led to 143. That's about 0.0004 percent. Hey, it's something right?

It gets worse. In May 2012, the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, CBP's parent agency, published a report on border-drone program management. It's primary, and perhaps most damning finding showed that CBP was "significantly underutilizing" its existing fleet, according to the Los Angeles Times. Of 7,336 scheduled mission hours, CBP flew only 3,909, the DHS report found.  

But no matter. The Border Patrol went ahead and added two drones to its fleet in 2011, and one in 2012. Not surprisingly, these drone ops "pushed the program over its budget," the Times continues, after which the agency had no other option but to shift $25 million from various other programs to cover the overhead. The DHS report suggested a halt on purchases until the whole bloody awful border-security scheme is overhauled. 

Even if something like a 24/7, 365 drone watch over the fence was cost effective, such a program would demand a lot of time, resources and operators, all of which CBP doesn't seem to have. Indeed, the agency is stretched thin. "We are barely hanging on five days a week, 16 hours a day here," CBP officer David Gasho recently told NPR. "It is very tight to do what we're doing right now."

Reach Brian at @thebanderson // @VICEdrone