Homeland Security can’t find a single record of a request to fly drones to help the Coast Guard, the agency said this week in a letter to a top member of Congress — an admission that’s likely to add fuel to the guard’s request for its own fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles.
R. Gil Kerlikowske, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said his agency’s Air and Marine office records all requests, but for some reason it “could not locate any prior requests from the USCG” for unmanned aerial surveillance flights.
For Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and chairman of a subcommittee that oversees the Coast Guard, the admission was the latest signal that the border agency isn’t treating its colleagues in the guard fairly.
“It’s baffling, really. This response goes to show just how disadvantaged the Coast Guard truly is under the DHS umbrella,” said Joe Kasper, Mr. Hunter’s chief of staff. “It’s impossible to excuse the terrible record keeping, but that aside — we know for a fact that the Coast Guard has made numerous requests for UAS support.”
Both the Coast Guard and CBP are part of the Homeland Security Department, and under the current arrangement the guard has to use CBP’s drones. That leaves the maritime mission hostage to the whims of border officials, who have their own missions, and who already struggle with logistics and maintenance problems that keep their fleet of drones grounded far too often.
Mr. Hunter is pressing for the Coast Guard to get its own ground-based drones, which it can assign on its own.
“The Coast Guard shouldn’t have to rely on CBP and vice versa. We know CBP is well intentioned, and it has its own mission, but that doesn’t help the Coast Guard beyond the joint operational space,” Mr. Kasper said.
CBP didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday, but the Coast Guard said it’s still studying its drone options.
Spokesman Chad Saylor said the guard has a “cooperative relationship” with the border agency, and some Coast Guard drone crews are part of flight operations for CBP’s maritime-version Predator drones.
Neither CBP nor the Coast Guard had substantive replies to requests for comment Tuesday afternoon, but in his letter, dated Monday, Mr. Kerlikowske insisted the two agencies “work side-by-side.”
He said even if Coast Guard requests aren’t recorded, there are clear instances when CBP was assisting the guard’s operations. He pointed to a Guardian drone that aided the Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell in making three interdictions over the last year.
“CBO and USCG are close partners and have been highly successful performing joint operations in support of DHS’s primary mission to protect the American people from terrorist threats,” Mr. Kerlikowske said.
He said they will try to improve operations.
But his agency has been promising better drone use for years, and has consistently fallen short, according to watchdog reports.
Just 5 percent of Drone flights were conducted in the southeast, meaning off the coast of Florida, according to a new report Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office. The rest of the time the drones were operating on the border with Canada or the landlocked southwest border with Mexico.
Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth last year called CBP’s drone program “dubious achievers,” saying hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted to stock a fleet that often can’t even get into the air.
He put the cost of flying each drone at more than $12,000 an hour — five times the figure CBP had given.
“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,” Mr. Roth said in releasing his report last year. “Securing our borders is a crucial mission for CBP and DHS. CBP’s drone program has so far fallen far short of being an asset to that effort.”