If there is a common question that I get when I talk with people who live and work outside of the Washington DC area, it is usually a variant of “What in the world are they (replace “they” with the name of a government official or institution) thinking?” More often than not, I reply, “Apparently they were not thinking at all.” (inference: or at least not like the way you think.)

It is not uncommon for people openly to question the decisions of other people, and this is particularly true of the decision-making processes of government. It is one of the many freedoms we have in the United States, as evidenced by the comments from the Tea Party advocates on the right and the Occupy Wall Street advocates on the left. It is a foundational element of the First Amendment that our rights to freedom of speech and of the press are an integral part of our right to petition government for a redress of grievances.

These thoughts kept bouncing around in my head when I read the CBP announcement that it had received a second Predator-B Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in Corpus Christi, Texas. As the Los Angeles Times disclosed in a must-read story for anyone interested in eliminating wasteful federal spending, the Corpus Christi-based UAV was one of three Predator UAVs that CBP would be accepting, even though there were not enough pilots to fly the ones that they already had. Here is how Brian Bennett started his article in the LA Times:

“The Homeland Security Department is adding three surveillance drone aircraft to a domestic fleet chiefly used to patrol the border with Mexico even though officials acknowledge they don’t have enough pilots to operate the seven Predators they already possess.

“The new drones are being purchased after lobbying by members of the so-called drone caucus in Congress, many from districts in Southern California, a major hub of the unmanned aircraft industry.”

It is no secret that I have questioned the propriety of using the Predator for border surveillance purposes. These long range, high altitude aerial platforms can carry precision-guided missiles in war zones that make them an ideal answer to a serious military problem. But unless we are planning to launch missiles into Canada or Mexico, which I hope is not the case, using Predators for border surveillance makes about as much sense as operating an M1-Abrams tank for use as a police patrol vehicle. Sure it CAN be used for that, but it is an expensive vehicle, better suited for another mission.

So, what was Congress thinking when it provided $32 million to purchase three more Predators at a time when CBP cannot operate the ones they have? An even better question, in my opinion, is why did Congress even authorize the purchase of the Predator for CBP purposes? There are literally hundreds of different UAVs that could be used to help CBP fulfill its mission. Many of them can be operated by a single Border Patrol agent. Most are far less expensive, and far more effective, than the Predator B. I dare say that for the cost of a single Predator B, including personnel, operation and maintenance, that CBP could place at least 5 smaller UAVs in each Border Patrol sector and still have money left over.

Why aren’t the budget hawks in Congress doing something about this? Why aren’t the oversight committees taking a serious look at the cost and effectiveness of the Predator instead of other aircraft? Better yet, why would Congress let CBP buy equipment that they currently cannot operate? Is this the way to respond to a financial crisis – or it is as contrived as the mission of the Predator by CBP?

What in the world are they thinking?

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
  • Michael Gomm

    You can equip a Cessna 206 with the same mx-15 camera system for a fraction of the cost of a predator. It takes far less people to keep the Cessna in the air and costs much less to operate. Plus you can fly a Cessna anywhere! Unmanned aircraft can only be operated in restricted use airspace.

    How do we get DHS / CBP to listen?