$32,000 Per Illegal Alien?
A program that hasn't received much press is the Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine unmanned surveillance aircraft, the Predator.
The LA Times cheerily reported last month, "The Homeland Security Department is adding three surveillance drone aircraft to a domestic fleet chiefly used to patrol the border with Mexico even though officials acknowledge they don't have enough pilots to operate the seven Predators they already possess." Also, "Customs and Border Protection has paid $240 million to manufacturer General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., a private company in San Diego, for drones and maintenance since 2005, according to government contract data."
Yesterday, an AP story headlined "Feds Use More Unmanned Aircraft to Secure Border." Christopher Sherman reported, "The aircraft are credited with apprehending more than 7,500 people since they were deployed six years ago." Sounds like high tech has been directed to and some serious hardware is patrolling the border. Must be a good thing, right?
In my former position as the Aircraft Maintenance Director for the US Border Patrol (1995-2000) one of my duties was to collect and report metrics for the monthly Air Operations Measures of Effectiveness Report for the Border Patrol's National Aircraft Maintenance Program -- such as costs per flight hour, mission capability rates, and so on. I also conducted several studies for the Del Rio Sector Chief Patrol Agent, one of which was to determine which aircraft type, fixed wing or helicopter, was the most effective in apprehensions and drug seizures and costs. The findings were clear and stark. Border Patrol Air Operations on the northern and southern borders were flying Piper Super Cubs and Cessna 182/206s as well as a number of helicopters, such as Aerospatiale AS-350 A-Stars, a couple of Bell H-1 Hueys, and Hughes OH-6As from the US Army. Generally, from 1995-2000, the fixed wing aircraft were four times more effective -- numbers and percentages of air-assisted apprehensions of illegal aliens -- than helicopters, and fixed-wing aircraft were almost ten times more effective -- numbers and percentages of air-assisted drug seizures -- than helicopters in that role. There were costs associated with air-assisted apprehensions and air-assisted drug seizures. I calculated the cost of apprehending a single illegal alien, by type of aircraft. The cost of apprehending a single illegal alien using a $100K fixed-wing aircraft was $20; the cost of apprehending a single illegal alien using a $1M helicopter was almost $220.
It should come to a shock to the public that Customs and Border Protection paid $240 million for unmanned systems which have only been "credited with apprehending more than 7,500 people since they were deployed six years ago." Is the cost of apprehending a single illegal alien with a Predator really $32,000?
Mark Hewitt is an aviation business executive, an educator, and retired USMC pilot.