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article imageUse of drones to increase again along Mexico-U.S. border

By Lynn Herrmann     Dec 21, 2011 in Politics
Washington - The United States will begin increasing its use of drones along the Mexico border in coming months, peering as deep as six miles into Mexico in the ongoing war on drugs and undocumented migrants, but the cost for such operations is raising criticism.
With the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security announcing the end of an 18-month deployment of more than 1,000 National Guard ground troops assisting the Border Patrol over the next two months, the Obama administration announced Tuesday it will increase its drone presence along the country’s southwest border.
The Drone Caucus, a bipartisan group formed in 2009, insists use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), should be dramatically increased, not just abroad in the war on terror, but along U.S. borders as well. There are currently eight drones along the U.S. borders, covering Washington to Minnesota to the north, where there are three, and from California to Louisiana at the south, where there are five. Another is quietly being planned for the southwest border.
Protecting the homeland is essential, according to a retired Air Force pilot now employed in the unmanned technology arena since the 1990s. “If you look at how important the UAVs have been in defense missions overseas, it’s not really rocket science to make adjustments for how important those things could be in the homeland for precisely the same reasons,” said Michael Kostelnick, a retired major general, according to the Tucson Sentinel. Kostelnick is currently an assistant commissioner for the CBP’s Office of Air and Marine.
Kostelnick said the drones being used along the US borders are identical to those used in Pakistan and other overseas regions, with the exception they do not carry weapons and the government does not intend to weaponize them.
John Fitzpatrick, Tucson Border Patrol Division Chief, said there is no accurate assessment of how valuable the drone are in relation to border security, but noted, “Whenever the aircraft shows up, the agents on the ground are more successful and more efficient in what they do. It gives us a lot of capabilities we didn’t have before,” the Sentinel reports.
However, critics of the US border drone program have offered hard numbers challenging Fitzpatrick’s assessment. Using information supplied by a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report and statistics from the Homeland Security Department, drones along the US borders have led to the apprehension of 238 drug smugglers and 4,865 undocumented immigrants since the border drone program began six years ago.
By comparison, in fiscal 2011 there were 327,577 undocumented migrants caught along the southwest border, translating into drone success being a minute fraction of such arrests.
Additionally, these drones cost $3,600 per hour of flight time, equating into about $7,054 for each undocumented migrant or smuggler caught. Each drone costs around $20 million. According to the GAO report, the government has spent $240 million for purchase and maintenance of the domestic drones, not including operation of the drones.
“Congress and the taxpayers ought to demand some kind of real cost-benefit analysis of drones,” said Tom Barry, trans-border project director at the Center for International Policy, who has researched the country’s domestic Predator drone program, the Washington Post reports. “My sense is that they would conclude these aircraft aren't worth the money.”
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Mexican Embassy in Washington has said its government will not object to the increased cross-border surveillance.
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