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CBP's Predator UAV Use Raises More Questions, Answers Elusive

Last week, as the world was focused on the series of cascading problems stemming from the earthquake/tsunami in Japan and on the diplomatic actions leading to military action this weekend in Libya, the Associated Press stories on the use of Predator UAVs to assist Mexican authorities in their war on drug cartels caught my attention. Admittedly, this is because I have raised questions about the use of Predators for border enforcement purposes – the rationale CBP has used publicly to justify its purchase and operation of these enormously expensive aerial platforms. From these stories, it would appear that the Predator might be rationalized after all.

The AP story broke as I was attending a conference at MIT’s Lincoln Labs on Homeland Security technology R&D. Among the fascinating presentations, the one on wide-area surveillance technologies in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill caught my attention. A primary problem caused by the Deepwater Horizon blowout was that crude oil might not surface until it was many miles away from the drilling platform site. Locating this oil required wide-area surveillance methods that would also provide high resolution so that small oil patches could be found and mitigated quickly. The scientists from Lincoln Labs did an after action analysis that showed the least effective platform for wide area surveillance was a tethered airship (which is logical, given that it was tethered to a specific location.) Close behind in its lack of effectiveness was CBP’s Predator UAV. Frankly, I was stunned at this finding.

Lincoln Labs’ speakers told attendees that Admiral Paul Zukunf, the Federal On-Scene Coordinator for the Deepwater Horizon spill, ordered CBP to remove the Predator after less than two weeks in the Area of Operations because of its obvious ineffectiveness. They presented a chart showing that a single-engine general aviation airplane with a combination of off-the-shelf sensors was orders of magnitude more effective than the Predator AND was far less expensive to operate in that arena. What was even MORE telling is that the Lincoln Labs speaker (if I understood the chart correctly) claimed a human being looking out the window of that same single engine airplane was more effective than the data derived from the Predator’s use in the Gulf of Mexico.

What I draw from these two references is that Congress ought to be asking more questions about the use of the Predator fleet by CBP. It is my sense that Congress has consistently overlooked (dare I say, “ignored”) not only the operational effectiveness, but also the cost effectiveness of the Predator UAV as a border surveillance tool.

The relative failure of the Predator during the Deepwater Horizon incident has, to the best of my knowledge, not been reviewed by any congressional committee.

Perhaps the Predator (and its military-grade cousin the Global Hawk) is playing a vital role in enforcing the Libyan no-fly zone and in gathering critical data about the military’s theatre of operations. From what I have been told, this would be an excellent application for a high-altitude unmanned surveillance aircraft. It is also likely being used to monitor radiation levels emanating from the Japanese nuclear reactors that were damaged in the devastating earthquake, a task where unmanned aircraft are more fitting. Neither of these uses, however, are part of the DHS mission.

The cost/benefit justification for CBP’s acquisition, operation and control of the Predator on the U.S. side of the border still baffles me. If it is used for cross-border intelligence gathering, as the AP article indicates, then it has taken on a different mission than the one CBP officials said it would have. The issue deserves greater scrutiny.

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