Friday, May 07, 2010

Unmanned drones on border pure security theater

Here's another foolish, wasteful, big-brotherish idea brought to you by federal lawmakers and heartily, regrettably endorsed by the El Paso Times in a May 5 editorial uruging the feds to:
Fast-track the paperwork and get drones up and scanning the Texas-Mexico border. It's a modern way to identify drug-smuggling operations.

There seems to be total agreement that drones can be just as successful in providing high-resolution views of ground activities here as they are in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The call here, with bipartisan political support, is for unarmed drones. The holdup is the Federal Aviation Administration, which requires a paperwork process before authorizing operation of unmanned aerial systems.

Drones are now in operation over the Arizona-Mexico border, and to some extent along the New Mexico-Mexico border.

Texas needs drones, too.
What a bunch of hokum! The reasons unmanned drones have been effective in Iraq and Afghanistan is that they're armed and can attack terrorists remotely. By contrast, Texas has already tried placing cameras along the border and having law enforcement respond when unauthorized border crossings were reported. The results were abysmal, costing more than $150,000 per arrest while wasting loads of law enforcement time on bad leads.

Such will inevitably be the case with drones, only with even greater expense, both for the equipment and the staffing to fly the planes and monitor surveillance footage. The biggest irony: Most of the contraband and smuggled immigrants aren't crossing at obscure rural spots on the border, they're mostly crossing at the regular checkpoints thanks to the volume of international traffic and corrupt border enforcers on both sides of the river!

To me, the worst part about pointlessly flying drones out in the middle of nowhere is that it sets a precedent for using them in urban areas for law enforcement purposes, as former Houston police chief Harold Hurtt at one point hoped to do.

The FAA is rightly holding up their deployment, as noted last year in this Grits post:
According to this source, however, it's not just that Collin County is restricted space but the FAA simply does not approve unmanned drones for routine law enforcement use outside of a couple of pilot programs. "Despite pressure from some law enforcement agencies, the FAA is holding firm to its policy against routine use of unmanned aerial vehicles. "There is nothing to our knowledge and no UAS technology at this time that would allow unmanned aircraft to meet the same 'see and avoid' [regulatory technical] standard that manned aircraft have to operate under," FAA spokesman Les Dorr recently told (06/09)
In articulating the need to deploy such drones, the El Paso Times editorialized:
It's understood that the FAA has a duty to control air traffic over the U.S. It's a safety issue, and drones are relatively new to all air spaces around the world.

But we have a border crisis here. There have been nearly 5,000 cartel drug-war murders

since January 2008 in Juárez. The Mexican drug gangs are said to have some 100,000 members, more than the Mexican military. And they are better armed. They move from place to place, wherever there is a hole in border security.

Drones, with their supersensitive surveillance equipment, look to be an answer to plugging security gaps.
Someone, anyone, please explain to me what flying unmanned drones in rural areas on the Texas side of the river will do to stop "cartel drug-war murders" in Juarez? The obvious answer: Not a damn thing! The latter offers no justification whatsoever for the former. It's not like, in any event, American drones could fly into Mexican airspace (I'll guarantee the Mexican nationalists won't go for that). And what will drones contribute to stopping contraband passing through the checkpoints, which is where the biggest problem lies? Finally, why should we suppose reaction by officialdom to camera footage from drones will be any more rapid or effective than it was based on reports from the stationary cameras put up by Governor Perry?

This is pure security theater: An expensive, do-nothing tactic which confuses activity for achievement while lining the pockets of contractors selling phony security solutions.


Shane said...

I agree that UAVs on the border are of limited use and a poor use of resources, but I think this is wrong:

"The reasons unmanned drones have been effective in Iraq and Afghanistan is that they're armed and can attack terrorists remotely."

The armed UAVs get all the media attention, but they comprise only a tiny fraction of what UAVs do in combat zones. The reason why unmanned drones are effective in these combat zones is because the US military has the ability to respond quickly, and because they're capable of multiple simultaneous missions. But you're right that none of the strengths of UAVs are relevant to the main concerns of border enforcement.

When we ran missions in Iraq, we'd set up unmanned surveillance aircraft for overwatch in support of the mission itself. If there was something happening, it would shape the actions of the troops who were already there. Similarly, we would be able to analyze other information from regular flights for other missions so predict with confidence what the enemy was going to do next. But not all such data was a) legal to collect outside of a war zone or b) relevant to the situation on the border.

For Border patrol, they would simply need a lot more manpower and a lot more authority before UAVs would be effective, even within the limited context of rural border enforcement.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks Shane, good points. Of course, police tend to use helicopters as their eye in the sky during tactical operations because of the obvious maneuverability advantages in urban settings. I consider that a different issue - as clearly you do, too - from straight-up border patrol, where all that really matters is boots on the ground, and you still have to stop corruption at the checkpoints. But the cost-benefit analyses of staffing up the Border Patrol that much don't remotely add up, which is why you get this kind of half-baked, mostly-for-show approach.

Anonymous said...

election year stunt, imo.


Anonymous said...

Keep an eye on Ellington Field, Houston. They DX'd their F16 Fighters for Predators.

Steroids Blog said...

It would make more sense for smugglers to be using UAVs to smuggle stuff in.

Anonymous said...

Isn't that the pattern, the military develops new tools, used in operations in other countries, and then uses them here?

Furthermore, "...pointlessly flying drones out in the middle of nowhere is that it sets a precedent for using them in urban areas for law enforcement purposes..." - some of us live "out in the middle of nowhere."

Having the military watching us is a bad idea anywhere.This is a disturbing precedent.

And, the situation in Mexico, and along the border, will not be helped by this stupid plan.

Anonymous said...

Collin County is not "restricted space." Some of it exists under the DFW Class B veil, but it's not closed to traffic, and it's not closed to traffic above and below the class B airspace. Besides, why would they fly the drones out of Collin County? There are plenty of airfields all along the Texas/Mexico border they could use. As far as using helicopters for surveillance, they are quite noisy. Drones can fly at much higher altitudes and be undetected. The drones are also much more fuel efficient than helicopters, and stay aloft for longer periods of time.

You may have an argument regarding the reaction time of law enforcement to what the drone sees. But, I don't think that's a fair comparison, because I never thought that the stationary camera system would be taken seriously, as it's easy to avoid a stationary camera once you know where it is.