- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Homeland Security officials regularly refuse to send out drones when the Coast Guard requests help with drug interdiction or search-and-rescue operations near the U.S. coast, a top House Republican said in a letter this week demanding answers.

The Coast Guard does not have its own fleet of land-based unmanned aerial vehicles, and is instead required to rely on drones flown by Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol. But CBP’s fleet has been plagued by problems, according to internal audits, leaving it unable to cover even its own needs, much less able to provide consistent support for the Coast Guard.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and chairman of a subcommittee that oversees the Coast Guard, said it’s time the Coast Guard gets its own UAVs dedicated to its mission.

“The Coast Guard has a unique and important mission of its own and so does CBP, but the Coast Guard should not have to rely on CBP and its limited assets to enhance its capability and success rate,” Mr. Hunter said.

He said he doesn’t blame CBP, which has its own broad needs it’s trying to accomplish, and he said the agency isn’t intentionally trying to stymy the Coast Guard. But he also said it makes no sense to hamstring the Coast Guard by tying it to an overwhelmed bureaucracy.

He sent a letter to CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske asking for more data about when and why the Coast Guard’s requests are denied.

CBP officials said they were reviewing the letter and would respond directly to Mr. Hunter.

But the agency said its Air and Marine Operations (AMO) division does regularly cooperate with the Coast Guard, including helping fly a maritime version of the CBP drone.

“In the drug transit zone between South America and the U.S. AMO flew 6,600 hours of counter-narcotic missions with its P-3 and [unmanned aerial system] aircraft,” the agency said of its 2015 activities. “These missions, flown in close coordination with the [Coast Guard], resulted in 198 interdiction events and the seizure or disruption of 207,000 pounds of cocaine.”

CBP officials said they were reviewing the letter.

For its part the Coast Guard was noncommittal when asked about whether it wanted an independent fleet, saying only that it’s studying things.

“The Coast Guard continues to evaluate available unmanned aerial systems and how they can complement the execution of Coast Guard missions,” the agency said in a statement to The Washington Times.

The Homeland Security inspector general has detailed conflicts between CBP and the Coast Guard in the past, including over upgrading H-60 helicopters. Both agencies use the same helicopter, and the Coast Guard took steps to cooperate but the inspector general said CBP cut off contacts with the guard.

“As a result, CBP may have missed an opportunity to save significant taxpayer money,” the inspector general said 2015 testimony to Congress.

As for drones, CBP’s Office of Air and Marine runs at only about 20 percent of the capacity it promised when it started the program.

“According to OAM, the aircraft did not fly more primarily because of budget constraints, which prevented OAM from obtaining the personnel, spare parts and other infrastructure for operations, and maintenance necessary for more flight hours. Other contributing factors included flight restrictions and weather-related cancellations,” the inspector general said.

CBP said it flew 5,502 hours of drone surveillance, saying 9,300 people were spotted attempting to cross the border, and 2,100 of them were apprehended. Drones also led to the seizure or disruption of trafficking of 68,721 pounds of marijuana and 5,552 pounds of cocaine, the agency said.

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