Seen here are unmanned Aircraft belonging to the CBP at an airport.

Seen here are unmanned Aircraft belonging to the CBP at an airport. Customs and Border Protection

America's Border Drones Are Costly and Ineffective, Watchdog Finds

An inspector general's report says the Department of Homeland Security's drone program does not do enough to justify a nearly half-billion dollar expansion. By Dustin Volz

The government's border drone program has failed to demonstrate that it has improved border security and is plagued with cost overruns, according to a scathing new report the Homeland Security Department's inspector general released Tuesday.

John Roth, DHS's inspector general, said the $443 million plan to expand the eight-year-old initiative, run by Customs and Border Protection, should be scrapped.

"Notwithstanding the significant investment, we see no evidence that the drones contribute to a more secure border, and there is no reason to invest additional taxpayer funds at this time," the report said. "CBP could put the $443 million it plans to spend to expand the program to better use by investing in alternatives, such as manned aircraft and ground surveillance assets."

Only a small fraction of immigrants crossing the border illegally are detained due to the use of border drones, the report concluded. In the Tucson, Ariz., border area, just 2,161 of 120,939 apprehensions—less than 2 percent—were attributed to drones. Border drones are primarily used along just 170 miles of the Arizona and Texas borders, the report said, despite expectations that the effort would span the entirety of the Southwest border.

The audit was particularly critical of the program's $12,255 per flight hour, which greatly exceeded estimates of $2,468 an hour.

But even that hourly cost does not include other operating costs that could not be measured, the report said, meaning that the program's overall cost effectiveness is likely even lower than the calculations would suggest. In addition, because CBP does not maintain performance benchmarks, it is impossible to prove the overall effectiveness of the camera-equipped surveillance technology.

"Congress and the public may be unaware of all the resources committed to this program" partly because of the inability to determine exact costs, the report said.

DHS did not respond to a request for comment regarding the inspector general report. Last year, the Government Accountability Office also criticized the program in a report that found drones were being improperly used at times for purposes other than immigration enforcement.