Here you go. A Sudden Meme has popped up: the drone surveillance program at the U.S. border has been “ineffective” and isn’t worth the money we’re spending on it.
Sudden Memes have become a frequent feature of news in the Obama era. This latest one has media outlets from all points of the political spectrum reporting in lockstep that drones on the border have been expensive and basically useless. $12,000 per hour! Way fewer hours of coverage than planned! Almost no significant contribution to border apprehensions! Covering only 170 miles of the border anyway!
It’s like no one engages in any abstract, analytical thought before running with these stories. (Although someone at Slate clearly paused for political thought. The Slate article decrying the ineffectiveness of the border-drone program is accompanied by an image of George W. Bush and then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff inspecting a border drone back in 2007. If drones are ineffective, then they have to be depicted as Bush’s Drones.)
A pause for objective reflection would at least prompt some research. Drones have been extremely effective, after all, at surveillance in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and Libya.
The Obama administration has used drones to fight drug trafficking and bolster local security in the Caribbean (also here) and Mexico. Central American countries have increased their own use of drones significantly in recent years, presumably because drones have been effective for them.
The U.S. Air Force’s drone fleet is overextended to the “breaking point” due to the popularity of the drone surveillance product with military commanders.
And in July 2014, the Obama administration requested a “drone surge” on the border with Mexico as part of its effort to interdict drug smuggling and human trafficking.
The administration is clearly a fan of drones, having deployed them to so many places where it considers the U.S. to have a national interest. But suddenly, six months after Obama proposed a drone surge at the U.S. border, an IG report reveals that the drones that have set the world on fire in other venues have been so ineffective on the U.S. border that someone ought surely to lose his pension for gross mismanagement.
It has to be a management problem, after all. Drones don’t task or fly themselves. If flying them over a mere 170 miles of border is limiting their effectiveness, well, expand their operating area. The coverage area is not a limitation of drones; it’s an artifact of tasking, logistics, and regulation, all of which the U.S. government has virtually absolute discretion over. The same goes for the altitudes drones fly at (depending on their type), and how they are used in flight.
Drones, used in conjunction with other intelligence sources, have created extensive profiles of enemy operations: what it looks like, for example, when terrorists and guerrilla insurgents move in convoys for various purposes, or in groups on foot. Logically, it cannot be the case that well-operated drones are incapable of making the same contribution to profiling drug-runners, and providing unique, long-range alertment near the U.S. border. (That must not be the case, since we are using drones for counternarcotics operations in the Caribbean and inside Mexico.) If anything, much of the terrain in South Asia is even more challenging as a setting for such profile analysis. And yet drones have been doing a bang-up job there.
Has the whole Customs and Border Protection drone program been asleep at the wheel? Inadequately trained or managed? Culpably negligent? Held at gunpoint for years and prevented from doing its job? And no one noticed (although there are well established metrics for cost and performance for the drones CBP uses) – and our best option now is to just back off of the whole thing? This Sudden Meme about ineffective drones just doesn’t pass the smell test.
Here’s an interesting fact, however, one whose interest is amplified by its place in the timeline. Obama has been drones’ biggest fan since he took office in 2009, and has significantly ramped up U.S. drone operations (see the links above). As noted, he proposed the drone surge on the border in July 2014.
In August 2014, we learned that (then) Governor Rick Perry of Texas was asking the FAA for permission to use drones for border surveillance, as part of the state’s effort to crack down on cross-border criminal activity.
The FAA was stonewalling him at the time, and there has been no informative follow-up reporting. In the months since, Texas has been using manned helicopter surveillance by the Texas National Guard. (Manned Army/Guard helicopters cost more per hour to operate – around $5,000-6,000 – than an Air Force MQ-9 Predator B, at closer to $3,200. Less capable military-grade drones cost even less. Presumably, the prospect of saving money affected Texas’s calculations.)
Helicopter surveillance has some advantages over fixed-wing drone surveillance, but has some comparative drawbacks as well. The two forms of surveillance are complementary, not interchangeable.
There may or may not be a connection between the Sudden Meme from Nowhere and Perry’s drone request last summer. But the story we are being given about an absurdly ineffective drone program that it took us years and years to detect, and which now should be scrapped rather than overhauled, defies reason. Only a person unable to think logically would accept the conclusion we are steered to: that drones, which are effective everywhere else, can’t be so on the U.S. southern border.