U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) does not have an adequate plan for running the fleet of drones the agency uses on the southern and northern borders, according to a report by the Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General.
The agency, which includes the Border Patrol, has been using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) since 2004 to patrol remote areas of the border.
The review by the Inspector General's office found that CBP's Office of Air and Marine, which operates the nine unarmed Predator drones, did not effectively manage the resources they have, according to the report released today. Each unarmed Predator system costs about $18 million.
"CBP procured unmanned aircraft before implementing adequate plans to do the following: Achieve the desired level of operation; Acquire sufficient funding to provide necessary operations, maintenance, and equipment; and Coordinate and support stakeholder needs," the report said.
The drones are used for a wide array of border enforcement operations, including looking for drug tunnels and interdicting suspected drug smuggling boats, and have also been used for reconnaissance after natural disasters such as floods. Although the program provides unique capabilities to CBP, the program needs better oversight, the review found.
"CBP had not adequately planned resources needed to support its current unmanned aircraft inventory. Although CBP developed plans to use the unmanned aircraft's capabilities in its Office of Air and Marine mission, its Concept of Operations planning document did not adequately address processes," the review said.
The audit found that lack of qualified staff and other factors reduced the number of hours CBP was actually able to fly the drones, which the Inspector General noted should have been about 10,600 hours to meet minimum mission requirements.
"Resource shortfalls of qualified staff and equipment coupled with restrictions imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration, weather, host airfields, and others have resulted in CBP scheduling just 7,336 flight hours for its seven unmanned aircraft and limited actual flight hours to 3,909 hours," the report noted.
"CBP has not adequately planned to fund unmanned aircraft-related equipment. The procurement funding category includes aircraft and related equipment, such as ground control stations, ground support equipment, cameras, and navigation systems," the report said. "This approach has resulted in insufficient equipment to perform UAS missions."
"CBP does not have an adequate number of ground control stations to ensure safe operations," the report said, on the finding that only 3 of 4 bases were the Predators fly from, National Air Security Operations Centers, did not have a mobile backup ground control station as required. The review by the Inspector General said only one of the operations centers had a waiver to operate without the mobile ground station.
"Unfortunately, this report clearly shows that CBP is not managing its unmanned aircraft program effectively. The agency is spending money without adequate or proper planning, resulting in expensive aircraft spending most of the time idle on the ground," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee.
The inspector general has recommended that no additional Predators be purchased until reforms can be implemented.
In a letter in response to the IG's findings, CBP said they concurred with four recommendations made by the inspector general to improve the program.
"CBP's Unmanned Aircraft System program provides command, control, communication, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability to support personnel and capabilities on the ground. CBP concurred with the recommendations in the Inspector General's report and is committed to continuing to improve the UAS program," CBP spokesman Michael Friel said.