TUSCON--It’s like the Tale of Two Programs. While SBInet—the Department of Homeland Security’s troubled sensor and surveillance system envisioned as a “virtual fence” along the U.S./Mexican border—is currently in a development freeze pending the result of an internal review launched by DHS honcho Janet Napolitano, not all DHS tech programs are in similar straits.
In fact, the Customs and Border Protection’s unmanned aerial system program, centered around a rapidly growing fleet of General Atomics-made MQ-9 Predator aircraft, has met with great success in the first five years of its life, so much so that the CBP has three more on order, bringing their total from seven to ten by the end of 2011. And not only is the fleet growing, but with the addition of a launch and recovery site last week in Corpus Christi, Texas, the DHS’ unmanned aerial capabilities will now cover the entire Southwest border, from the El Centro Sector in California to the Gulf of Mexico in Texas.
In addition to launch and recovery sites in Arizona, Grand Forks, N.D.; Cape Canaveral AFB in Florida, and Corpus Christi, Texas, CBP Assistant Commissioner Michael Kostelnik, a retired USAF major general tells Ares that the department also has a development base at Ft. Drum in upstate New York, so the CBP “can go up there at very short notice ... it gives us the ability to respond to high-end threats to the Northeast” as fast as a Predator can fly there from one of its other bases.
The current fleet of five land-based MQ-9 Predator Bs are identical to what the U.S. military flies, with electro-optical sensors and cameras, forward looking infrared, synthetic aperture radar and laser range designators, Kostelnik says, with the exception that the domestic Preds are unarmed and carry Wolfsburg radios for law enforcement connectivity.
Unlike the military, Border Patrol agents out in the field aren’t able to receive real-time information from the UAVs in the sky just yet, but they can talk to Air Interdiction Agents in a control center who are watching the feeds in real-time. “We don’t stream the info to the agents on the ground right now but we clearly have the capability to do that,” Kostelnik says, adding that the Predators come in pretty handy at night since they can laser designate targets so the agents can focus in on problem areas on the ground.
One of the prime missions the Predators are currently performing that save agents critical time and free them up for other missions is performing sensor evaluations on unattended ground sensors when they are set off, to determine whether they were tripped by animals, high winds, possible illegal aliens, or drug smugglers. Significantly, Kostelnik says that all of the UAVs are flown and operated by CBP agents—as opposed to contractors—and that the only real limitation to their constant use is the lack of trained agents qualified to fly them, as opposed to the number of platforms available
But all this doesn’t come without a cost. As Michael Bruno recently pointed out in Aviation Week, the CBP Inspector General has reported that a UAS costs twice as much to operate as a manned aircraft owing to a “significant” amount of logistical support—around 20 people per UAS—and specialized operator and maintenance training. In fact, the use of UAS led to fewer illegal-alien apprehensions per flight hour than manned aircraft, the IG spotlighted in 2005.