By Karl Reiner
New technology always brings change. Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) also commonly known as drones have become one of the standard weapons used in fighting terrorists in places such as Afghanistan. The drone's main advantage is its hushed ability to remain over a target area for hours, something helicopters and other aircraft cannot do.
Unmanned aircraft are manufactured in a number of sizes and UAS technology has numerous civilian applications. It can monitor transmission lines, count cows, perform crop surveys, collect flood control data, do mapping and support firefighting efforts. The use of unmanned aircraft is growing, it is expected that 30,000 will be in service throughout the world by 2018.
The large Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has over 18,000 of its 230,000 personnel working on the Mexican border. The department also has undertaken a program to build and operate a fleet of unmanned aircraft. The program, which is in the testing phase, carries a price tag of $240-$250 million.
On the border, properly managed drones can provide the agents on the ground with timely intelligence information. DHS wants to have 24 drones in the air by 2016. Including the cameras, antennas, sensors, radar, and spare parts, the price of a single drone runs about $18.5 million.
Drones have been deployed along the Arizona-Mexico border. The remotely piloted aircraft operated by Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are the Predator B type. Weighing over 10,000 pounds, they are 39 feet long and have a 66 foot wingspan. They can stay in the air for approximately 20 hours.
They fly out of Ft. Huachuca, carrying their sophisticated cameras and sensing equipment. Often flying at 20,000 feet, they do reconnaissance and surveillance, searching for drug smugglers and migrants. The camera systems can provide identification data from 10 miles away.
The Predators are not cheap to operate. They cost approximately $3,000 per hour to fly. Critics say they are not worth the expense. The drones can't fly in bad weather. They pose a danger to other aircraft. They have done little so far to stem the flow of illegal migrants or drug smugglers.
The critics may have a point. The Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General issued a report last May outlining a host of problems in the CBP program. The aircraft were purchased before the agency figured out how to achieve a steady level of operation. The drones have been underused as a result.
CBP also failed to anticipate operations and maintenance expenses. Money ($25 million) had to be taken from other programs to cover the shortfall. The report concluded by saying that no more unmanned aircraft should be purchased until after the operations and maintenance problems are sorted out.
In July 2011, the Arizona legislature passed SB 1406. The law contains a provision allowing the state to build its own fence on the Mexican border. A website: www.buildtheborderfence.com was established to solicit donations. Through early November of this year, slightly over 4,000 people had donated a total of $193,602 online. Because the website total does not include donations mailed in, there is probably more money in the fund.
Gov. Brewer has said that drones are ideal for border security and counter-drug missions. Now that the federal program in Arizona has hit some rough spots, the state ought to consider contributing the fence project dollars to the federal drone program. The state can get by without its own fence project. Supporting drone technology development would be a better security investment and a good use for the fence donations. Perhaps the legislature will consider the idea.