Although the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been flying drones above U.S. borders for seven years, the drones' current uses, and potential expansion thereof, are now a contentious political issue. Last week, a Navy Global Hawk surveillance drone crashed just off the coast of Maryland. The very next day Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky introduced the Preserving Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act of 2012, which would limit the federal uses of drones within the United States to patrolling borders, preventing "imminent danger to life," and responding to high risk of a terrorist attack. The day after that, a prominent technology blog declared: "Revealed: 64 Drone Bases on American Soil."
Can we all take a deep breath?
Yes, such headlines feed the justified worries of many Americans about how drones could be used within the United States. Like other first-world security services, CBP fulfills its mandate largely by substituting remote monitoring and surveillance technology for human eyeballs on the ground. Of particular concern now is the prospect of a fleet of drones used by CBP that could potentially spy on -- or, in some extreme versions, bomb -- U.S. citizens. The conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer summarized one line of criticism in a recent rant about the prospect of domestic drones:
I want a ban on this. Drones are instruments of war. The founders had a great aversion to any instruments of war, the use of the military, inside of the United States. They didn't like standing armies. It has all kinds of statutes against using the army in the country. A drone is a high-tech version of an old Army-issue musket. It ought to be used in Somalia to hunt the bad guys. But not in America.
Americans are right to be deeply concerned about the seemingly inevitable adoption of drones by federal, state, and local law enforcement, as well as by corporations and academic researchers. Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has provided approximately 300 certificates of authorization drones to fly over the United States, although some in the aerospace industry believe there could be as many as 30,000 in the skies by 2020. And the fears of many Americans are heightened by the lack of transparency and oversight of U.S. drone strikes abroad since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But much of the anxiety surrounding CBP drones -- intensified by the false, yet oft-repeated, claim that the Environmental Protection Agency used "military-style drone planes to secretly observe livestock operations" -- is overblown.
The CBP's reach is admittedly vast. It is the "largest law enforcement air force in the world," according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), with an air fleet comprising more than 270 manned aircraft -- including modern Blackhawk helicopters and P-3 Orion maritime surveillance planes -- as well as a total of nine unarmed Predator B drones, which were deployed to the southwest border in 2005 and the northern border in 2009. Of greater concern are mobile Blackhawks, which are vastly more capable than their Predator cousins. According to a CBP official's recent congressional testimony, "The new and converted Black Hawks offer greater speed and endurance, greater lift capacity, more sophisticated onboard data processing... the ideal platform for confronting border violence and supporting operations in hostile environments." Now that's scary!
Yet despite its sizeable fleet of manned and unmanned aircraft, CBP is already unable to meet increasing border patrol demands -- which include detecting illegal activity, conducting search-and-rescue missions, surveying natural disaster areas or Mississippi River levees, and transporting agents and equipment -- on top of its day-to-day responsibilities, such as fostering trade and travel flows into the United States. The agency is responsible for guarding and monitoring 7,000 miles of shared borders with Mexico and Canada, 95,000 miles of shoreline, and 329 ports of entry. Even with a workforce of 60,000, CBP met just 73 percent of requests for its air assets in fiscal year 2010 -- the goal is 95 percent -- due to the lack of maintenance for aging aircraft, insufficient all-weather planes, and understaffing, according to the GAO. Surveillance drones offer the CBP a number of advantages over manned aircraft, such as longer mission duration over remote areas, while providing near real-time imagery via video cameras and thermal infrared and synthetic aperture radars.