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  • The Costs of Border Surveillance
    Posted by Paul McLeary 6:43 PM on Dec 29, 2011

    blog post photo
    Lousiania National Guard and a New Orleans police office fly over the city in a brand-new Lakota helicopter

    It’s all a numbers game in the Department of Defense these days. And with budgets about to lose a significant number of zeros, the DoD is looking for cost savings anywhere it can.

    Take a look at this new partnership between the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the DoD. The Pentagon is pulling its 1,200 National Guard troops off the southwest border, while deploying more aerial assets to make up for the lost boots on the ground. According to Army officials, this will reduce the cost of the Guard’s border operations from $1.2 billion a year to (at most) $60 million.

    The 1,200 Guardsmen — who will be pulled off the border by March — mostly staffed static inspection points out in the southwest desert, and were able to radio in reports of suspicious movement to local law enforcement or Border Patrol agents.

    Instead, the DoD now says that it is assigning an unspecified number of specially equipped OH-58A Kiowa and brand-new UH-72 Lakota helicopters, along with RC-26B fixed-wing aircraft, to monitor the border. The Guard already has 144 Kiowas dedicated to the counterdrug mission across the country, and of these, 116 are “fully outfitted and specially equipped” for the mission, according to the 2011 Army Posture Statement. The Guard also flies 11 RC-26B’s, although it is not known how many will be dedicated to this border mission. 

    Lt. Col. Kerry Dull, chief of the Army National Guard Counterdrug Aviation Program, told me this week that while the Guard is still considering which assets it will employ, the Kiowa and Lakota (which is replacing the Kiowa) come with modified Electro-Optical/Infra-Red (EO/IR) systems and law enforcement-compatible radios. The Lakota, Dull said, “exceeds everything that the Kiowa was capable of doing. It has a better EO/IR system on it, it has a better radio package on it, and it has Full Motion Video capability,” so it can pass video to ground units in real time.

    The Lakotas are also outfitted with a Mission Equipment Package that its maker, Eurocopter, describes as “a centerline electro-optical infrared sensor, a 30-million candlepower searchlight, analog/digital video downlink, rear observers’ console with a 15-inch display, an enhanced tactical communications suite, an onboard digital video recorder, 10.4-inch auxiliary displays for the pilot and co-pilot, and a video management system.” Not bad, huh?

    The fixed-wing RC-26B also comes outfitted with FLIR’s Star SAFIRE HD system along with the capability to transmit full-motion video, a mission operations system and a moving map.

    Not only are these packages going to provide more surveillance over a larger area, but they come with those huge cost savings, as well.

    Consider that $60 million for the entire 2012 calendar year as compared to the price tag DHS pays for flying nine $20 million Predator B remotely piloted aircraft along border areas.

    In June, the DHS Predator flights reached a milestone of 10,000 hours, and DHS recently reported that the Preds have assisted in the capture of 4,865 undocumented immigrants and 238 drug smugglers since they went wheels up in 2005. But let’s put that in perspective. Given that 327,577 illegal border crossers were nabbed along the southwest border in fiscal 2011 alone, that 4,846 over the past six years doesn’t look all that significant.

    But more importantly, there’s the price tag for these operations. It costs the DHS $3,600 an hour to fly a Predator, according to a recent piece by The Washington Post’s William Booth, which adds up to about $7,054 for each person caught. On top of that number, the U.S. government has also spent $240 million to maintain those Predators. The cost per apprehension looks even worse if you peek at a recent Government Accountability Office report that outlines a program called “Big Miguel” run by U.S. Northern Command's Joint Task Force North, headquartered at Fort Bliss, Texas. The task force leased a Cessna aircraft outfitted with an infrared sensor for $1.2 million a year, and the piloted aircraft was then able to assist in the capture of as many as 8,000 people flowing across the border while assisting in the seizure of $54 million in marijuana during that one year alone. The takeaway? Big Miguel identified illegal movements across the border at a cost of about $230 a head.

    This isn’t to throw the DHS Predator program under the bus, but given the success of Big Miguel, and the Guard’s deployment of cost-effective manned rotary- and fixed-wing assets to the border, and one wonders if the newest and the most tricked-out drones really have to be the answer to every surveillance question. Money talks, and given the budgets about to be handed down by Washington, you can bet that this newest Guard mission — and the Predator mission — are going to be put under the microscope.

    Tags: ar99, national-guard, rotary-wing, kiowa, lakota, unmanned

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