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Predator UAV Costs – An Analysis of Alternatives that Needs Further Analysis

Homeland Security Today’s Mickey McCarter has written the most thorough piece on SBInet that I have seen in the past several years. His story includes more details on an Analysis of Alternatives undertaken for Secretary Napolitano than has previously been made public. I highly recommend it to anyone (congressional committee staffers, for example) interested in how federal money is being spent for border security purposes.

While there is a significant amount of new information in this article, the last few paragraphs of McCarter’s story on the cost of UAVs is something that ought to raise eyebrows as high as those raised from the remainder of the article. McCarter writes:

As of 2010, CBP operated four Predator UAVs out of Arizona, one of out Texas and one out of North Dakota.

The unit cost for one Predator is about $4.5 million, according to DHS estimates. But the costs of operating a UAV can become more than double the costs of operating a manned aircraft, said the Congressional Research Service (CRS) last summer. (See Homeland Security: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Border Surveillance.)

Operating one UAV could take a crew of up to 20 Border Patrol agents, according to the CRS analysis. CBP’s Air and Marine Branch last fall pegged the per-hour cost of operating a Predator UAV for border surveillance at $3,234.

Based on that figure, keeping one UAV in the air every hour of the year would cost about $28.5 million.

As I have previously written (see posts in 2010 on August 31, September 13 and November 30), I have yet to understand how DHS can cost-justify the use of Predator UAVs for border security/enforcement purposes. I have no doubt that these high-altitude aircraft can perform some missions that might assist Border Patrol officers, although a Naval Post Graduate School analysis claims that the sensors on a CBP Predator cannot detect anything smaller than a medium-sized vehicle (meaning, if true, it cannot detect people walking across terrain). What I DO question is whether there is a better, cheaper, more effective means of performing that same mission – and DHS has been strangely quiet in answering that question.

At $28.5 million per year for one UAV, DHS is spending roughly $114 million annually to deploy its current Predator fleet. I’ve had sources tell me that the cost is much higher than this – but for the sake of argument, let’s assume McCarter is accurate. Under the Analysis of Alternatives, what other technologies/personnel deployments could be accomplished with that same amount of money? What is the purpose of an Analysis of Alternatives if it is not to help justify cost effectiveness? If DHS is terminating a program that is benefitting border patrol agents, as McCarter’s article indicates, then DHS needs to do a better job of communicating why the new approach is better than its previous one.

In her high-profile border security talk earlier this week at the University of Texas El Paso, Secretary Napolitano conveniently left out any description of why Predator UAVs were being used for border security/enforcement purposes and why the cost was justified. Maybe the Predator is being used for some other mission than just border security purposes. But to date, no one has indicated that its use is for anything else.

If I were advising Secretary Napolitano in preparation for her upcoming congressional testimony on the FY2012 budget (which the White House has announced it will release on or about February 14), I’d highly recommend that she have a specific answer to this issue. She ought to be asked about it. And if she isn’t, that will tell me that congressional budget hawks will be overlooking an opportunity to find real dollar savings.

The Analysis of Alternatives should get far more intense analysis.

David Olive focuses his blogging primarily on the “business of homeland security” — the interaction of the private sector with the Department of Homeland Security and other national security agencies. Read More
  • http://www.defensemedianetwork.com Craig

    “a Naval Post Graduate School analysis claims that the sensors on a CBP Predator cannot detect anything smaller than a medium-sized vehicle (meaning, if true, it cannot detect people walking across terrain).”

    I’ve looked all over the Web for this analysis, but can’t seem to find it. Could you provide a link?