The Tar Pit

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Bush Administration suspends U.S.-Mexico border drone program... with money to spare

Despite its success against illegal aliens and marijuana smuggling, and no shortage of funds, an innovative program using unmanned drones to patrol America's southern border is being suspended pending further evaluation, according to Mario Villarreal, spokesman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection:

"It's undetermined when the program will start back up," Villarreal said. "I would say sometime this year."

He said Congress appropriated $10 million for the program for its fiscal 2005 budget year, which began Oct. 1. "There is money left over for continued use," Villarreal said.

Israeli-made Hermes unmanned vehicles were first deployed between June 24 and Sept. 30, and they helped catch 965 illegal immigrants and confiscate 843 pounds of marijuana, said Andrea Zortman, spokeswoman for the Border Patrol's Tucson sector, which covers all the Arizona-Mexico border except for an area around Yuma.

The Hermes was followed by the RQ-5 Hunter made by Northrop Grumman.


Zortman said the Hunter helped agents make 287 apprehensions of illegal immigrants and seize 1,900 pounds of marijuana.

Imagine that, a successful federal program getting iced with money in the bank. The two Hunter UAV drones in the program cost slightly less than $2 million to operate and maintain during trials.

Two Hermes 450 were also used in the trials.

That's $2 million for two drones, plus the expense of the other two drones. That would appear to leave approximately half of the $10 million budget left to spend on the program.

There is an interesting item in this month's Aviation Today:

Paul Olski, director of aviation joint planning and development in the Department of Homeland Security, said that the three Hermes 450 UAVs patrolling the Arizona-Mexico border were so successful that the agency plans to purchase "a number of Hunter UAVs." During a three-month test period, the Hermes, flying at about 15,000 feet at around 90 knots, spotted some 853,000 people crossing the border, according to Olski.

While it's encouraging there are plans to purchase more drones, there appears to be a discrepancy here about the number of Hermes tested. If we assume conservatively that the three Hermes drones referred to by Aviation Today actually describes all four Hunter and Hermes drones used during the test, that would indicate that of 853,000 illegal aliens observed by the drones during the six months of test. Adding Tucson BP spokeswoman Andrea Zortman's figures of 965 Hermes and 287 Hunter apprehensions, 1,252 of the 853,000 observed illegal aliens were successfully apprehended, or less than two tenths of 1%.

If those figures are correct and if the figure of 1,252 is exclusive of a significant number of the 853,000 illegals observed by the drones in half a year that may have been captured by other means (and therefore weren't credited to the drones), then it stands to reason that more support of the drones on the ground, as well as more drones overall, would have a significant impact on the number of illegal aliens who successfully cross the Mexican border. If the apprehension rate was increased to even 25%, that would mean that an increased deployment of the drones and ground support would enable Customs and Border Protection to thwart at least another 400,000+ illegal alien border crossings annually than are currently being prevented, and that's in only a portion of the Arizona border alone.

Based on those numbers an obvious solution to the "refined requirement" Bush Administration says it needs to develop for the use of UAVs against illegal aliens presents itself:

More, now.