News reports have started to trickle out about a decision by a Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) Predator operator to send a multi-million dollar unmanned aerial vehicle into the Pacific Ocean when it became clear it could not make it back to its home base on Monday, January 27th. This National Journal adaptation of the original AP story is but one of many – and they all leave me with a lot more questions than answers about what happened and why.
It is no secret that CBP’s use of high-altitude UAVs for border surveillance purposes has drawn a fair amount of press coverage but almost no public congressional oversight. The oversight that has occurred has been more of a love-fest than a serious inquiry into whether these particular types of aircraft are cost-effective and provide the highest capability for the mission to which they are assigned.
However, this story is about more than the loss of an unmanned aerial vehicle. In this instance, if initial news stories are accurate, CBP lost 50 percent of its Predator-based maritime radar capability. This loss alone merits some quick and thorough investigation. (AP: “It was just one of two Predator B drones equipped with radar specifically designed to be used over the ocean.”) And if the headlines are correct, CBP has grounded its entire Predator fleet while it conducts its own inquiries.
There is more to this story than has come out so far.
I really hope there are members of Congress who will be asking serious questions about the incident and whether CBP will be allowed to replace the now-destroyed aircraft. They also need to ask whether, now that the Predator fleet is grounded, if there aren’t more effective and more efficient means of achieving greater security capability. The long-buried-from-the-public Analysis of Alternatives prepared for CBP several years ago about border detection technologies might be a good place to start.