DHS Wastes Money on Adult Toys (i.e., Drones), OIG Reports

By David North on June 14, 2012

The Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has found that DHS under-uses its pilot-less drones, and does so without sufficient planning or budgeting.

My sense is that DHS has fallen into the same trap as the Pentagon on a smaller scale and is infatuated with toys for adult males, in this case the drones. The wasteful nature of using (or having and not using) the drones was something I covered in a blog nearly two years ago.

Deep within the stuffy, high-tech prose of the OIG's report one finds that only about a third to a quarter of the drones' capacity is used by DHS, and an unknown portion of that use is not for immigration control at all, but for other (I guess worthy) public purposes.

One of the problems is that DHS does not have enough desk-bound pilots for these vehicles and another is that DHS has not sought enough money to fund the program — and thus has to steal funds from other immigration-control operations to manage what few drone flights there are.

The numbers are depressing. First, the OIG calculates that there are 13,328 flight hours "to meet the mission availability objective" and a subset of that number, 10,662 flight hours per year, "to meet the mission availability threshold."

Those numbers, for the seven operational drones, should be contrasted with 3,909 "actual flight hours" within a year. In addition to these seven drones, there are another three coming to the operation. The drones are based in Sierra Vista, Ariz., Corpus Christi, Texas, Cocoa Beach, Fla., and Grand Forks, N.D.

So most of the time the drones sit on the ground. The 3,909 hours relates to seven drones. Assuming 52 weeks in the year, the average drone is used 10.7 hours a week, or about one and a half hours a day. The OIG did not provide that detail about the extent of non-use of the drones.

The drones are, thus, mostly not used, and when they are it is not clear to what extent they are used for immigration control. The report offers only clues on that subject. Here is a verbatim list of seven accomplishments noted in the text:

  • Provided NOAA with videos of dams, bridges, levees, and riverbeds where flooding occurred or was threatened;

  • Provided FEMA with video/radar images of flooding;

  • Provided surveillance over a suspected smuggler's tunnel, which yielded information that, according to an ICE representative, would have required many cars and agents to obtain;

  • Provided radar mapping, or overlying radar images taken a few days apart, to show changes in location of flooding, allowing the National Guard to deploy high-water vehicles and sandbags to where they were most needed;

  • At the request of the State Department, participated in discussions with another country on the use of unmanned aircraft;

  • Participated in joint efforts with the U.S. Army to leverage capabilities of unmanned aircraft and test new technology; and

  • Participated in efforts to establish a quarterly forum to share lessons learned with the Air Force and other government agencies.

It is nice to know that the drones were helpful in finding an illicit tunnel, but it should be noted that tunnels, by definition, start and end within a couple of hundred yards of the border, and are usually located in urban areas. Using drones to find a tunnel is like using a huge bulldozer to do the work that two guys with shovels could do in a matter of half an hour.

The other six examples quoted above had little or nothing to do with immigration control. I suspect that the nameless nation mentioned above is Mexico. There is nothing in the report about the drone we gave to Mexico that crashed into someone's backyard in El Paso 18 months ago; fortunately no one was killed or injured.

The lack of any success stories (other than the one about the tunnel) regarding drone use in the immigration field suggests to me that there is little to brag about.

Similarly, the report lists 10 agencies as using the drones, eight of which have little or nothing to do with the control of illegal immigration:

Border Patrol, and Immigration and Customers Enforcement; and

FBI, FEMA, Secret Service, Bureau of Land Management, Department of Defense, U.S. Forest Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, all federal agencies, and the Texas Rangers.

This was a mere listing of agencies using the DHS drones, and did not indicate the hours of usage, something that one might expect in an OIG report.

I do not mind the notion of other agencies using the otherwise idle drones, but I worry about who is paying for that use. In its own muted way, the OIG report leads to questions on this subject when it recommends: "Establish interagency agreements with external stakeholders for reimbursement of expenses."

The recommendation implies that there are no such agreements (with a single exception) and that may suggest some lack of reimbursement to DHS; maybe in the multi-millions of dollars. In my governmental experience, however, I found that spending an agency's money to pay another federal agency is a relatively simpler process than hiring someone or, particularly, creating a contract with a private firm. I wish the OIG had been a little more forthcoming on this issue.

Speaking of funding, the report stated: "According to [Customs and Border Protection], it was required to transfer approximately $25 million from other programs in FY 2010 to address operations and maintenance shortfalls."

In other words, moneys were taken away from the Border Patrol and other actual law enforcement operations to cope with the under-budgeting of the drone program. And all this was going on while the administration said it did not have enough funds to adequately support enforcement, detention, and deportation programs. It as if the government said "no meat and potatoes, guys, we need to spend that money on truffles."

Instead of using the $25 million to maintain these exotic robots, the money could have been used to buy 10,000 one-way airline tickets at $2,500 each, thus facilitating 10,000 deportations to far-flung places. You can fly to most places on the globe for $2,500.

Were the money to be spent on deportations to Mexico, and all those deported were in the northern part of the country, more than 40,000 tickets to Mexico City could have been purchased (based on Newark to Mexico City airfares).

Playing with drones is an expensive business.