Unmanned Border Planes Can Require a Crew of 20

The Office of Border Patrol is using a number of unmanned planes to patrol and track down immigrants crossing a portion of the Southwest border.

While this is a positive step toward using mobile technology, it is also an expensive one with some severe limitations when there is cloud cover and nasty weather, said Richard Skinner, Department of Homeland Security inspector general, in a report to be released at a congressional hearing this morning.

"UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] remain very costly to operate and require a significant amount of logistical support as well as specialized operator and maintenance training," Skinner said. "Operating one UAV requires a crew of up to 20 support personnel. OBP [Office of Border Patrol] officials mentioned that the cost to operate a UAV is more than double the cost of manned aircraft, and that the use of UAVs has resulted in fewer seizures."

Skinner said the Hermes UAV cost $1,351 per flight hour, and the Hunter UAV cost $923 per flight hour. The cost figures include operation and maintenance costs, and the salaries and benefits of the crew needed to keep them in the air. The UAVs can stay in the air for up to 20 hours at a time.

Skinner added that 90 percent of the responses to sensor alerts resulted in "false alarms" because the sensors were reacting to road traffic, trains and animals.

"Our analysis indicates that OBP agents are spending many hours investigating legitimate activity because the sensors cannot differentiate between illegal and legitimate events," Skinner said.

Since the spy cameras and sensors are not linked, a sensor alert does not automatically pan or tilt the camera in the direction of the triggered sensor so agents can see what is going on, he added.

Will Stevens Light a Defense Department Christmas Tree?

Each year, there is one bill that becomes the "Christmas tree" for all sorts of unrelated items that members desperately want but can't possibly get a majority of Congress to vote for. So they attach them to a must-pass piece of legislation -- daring their colleagues to vote them down.

This year's target is the defense appropriations bill. The question is whether Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, will attach the issue of drilling in Alaska -- something many members strongly oppose -- to the defense appropriations bill, which most lawmakers are afraid to vote against, especially now.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who knows how to play this game as well, told the Washington Post that what Stevens was doing was "disgusting." But when asked whether he would vote against the defense bill, McCain said: "That's the dilemma. I'd have to look at the whole bill. I think it is disgraceful that I have to be put in that position."

The defense bill is likely to be the vehicle for funding for Katrina aid, and the flu, as well. And, according to CQ.com, congressional leaders are even considering attaching their budget-cut package to the Defense Department, which would probably force members to stay in town for part of next week. And that is a problem, because there are only nine shopping days left until Christmas.