The recent Associated Press story on the cost of border security (“Huge Costs with Mixed Results”) indicated that the United States has paid over $90 Billion over the past 10 years on border security technology and personnel. It was an interesting story and one that made little pretense about covering the “benefits” that normally comes along with a traditional “cost-benefit” analysis. But that should not take away from the fact that the story by Martha Mendoza provides a great starting place to have a discussion about what taxpayer money has bought.

It has always been a legitimate question to ask what we are getting for our money. An even better question, and one that is not so frequently asked, is “Could we have gotten something better for the money we spent?” Often this second question is answered through the preparation of a rigorously-researched “Analysis of Alternatives.”

It is somewhat remarkable that the recent Analysis of Alternatives (AOA) on the cost and effectiveness of border technologies performed for Secretary Napolitano in conjunction with the SBInet program was neither mentioned in the AP story nor, for that matter, in any serious manner in any of the Congressional oversight hearings since it was issued. One might even be led to believe that DHS does not want the AOA report to see the light of day.

Why, you ask?

One reason may be because it reportedly shows the money DHS is spending on Predator UAVs is the highest cost/least effective of any of the technologies being used for border security purposes. Those words, “highest cost/least effective” among the alternatives available to CBP ought to mean that the Congressional budget hawks have this program in their sights. Alas, this does not seem to be the case. Even the staunchest Tea Partiers have been silent. I cannot figure out why that is the case.

It is not for a lack of visibility of this expensive aircraft which was not designed for the CBP mission it is being used for currently. Just a few weeks back, CQ Homeland Security’s Rob Margetta wrote a lengthy piece (subscription required) on CBP’s Predators having hit the 10,000 hour operational milestone. It was a very thorough story on the Predator’s use and capabilities – but there was not any discussion about the cost of operation. Nor was there any comparison of the Predator’s life-cycle costs versus those of any of the other aircraft in the CBP fleet.

There is no question that CBP is making significant use of the Predators. 10,000 operational hours is noteworthy. And the capabilities listed in the CQ story are extensive. But, as political consultants say when talking about a candidate’s chance in an election: “Compared to what?”

My initial reaction to the CQ story was that CBP’s bragging about the 10,000 hours the Predators have flown is similar to a hypothetical pizza parlor owner bragging about how the Humvee his shop uses to deliver pizzas has never failed in delivering pizza to his customers. Maybe so, but any reasonable business owner would look at the cost of operating a Humvee versus the cost of operating a less-expensive, but equally effective delivery vehicle, and ask whether the Humvee makes any sense. Indeed, one may argue that by eliminating the high cost, limited utility of the Humvee, one may be able to buy several smaller, but fully capable, vehicles. By multiplying the number of delivery vehicles, the pizza owner would be able to service many more customers at the same (or a reduced) cost.

A Humvee may work as a pizza delivery vehicle, and a Predator may work as a border surveillance technology, but neither makes sense when there are better, less-expensive alternatives available. Until someone in Congress, or at OMB, starts asking the “compared to what” question about the Predators’ cost and effectiveness, I believe we will see more stories like the AP story on the high cost of border security and we will wonder what we are getting for our money.

In my mind, only a foolish person would buy a $20,000 slice of pizza, no matter what toppings were on it. Someone needs to ask if the Predator is CBP’s equivalent of that slice of pizza.

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
  • Janicekephart

    I’d much prefer a stromboli.  There’s very little toppings getting out, and it isn’t as expensive.  I think that’s what that thing called SBInet was, although DHS tried to make it look like the humvee of pizzas that tasted like a frozen version, with freezer burn.

  • Janicekephart

    The 2010 SW Border Counternarcotics Strategy lists CBP as getting $32 million just from the SW Border bill supplemental for “two new unmanned aerial detection systems.”  I haven’t dug to find the entire budget amount but that’s a tasty start.  Project Gunrunner cost $10 million just on the ATF side of that project… hmmm, these are worthwhile tax dollars!