Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 22, 2005

Do we need UAVs on the border?

Filed under: Border Security,Technology for HLS — by Christian Beckner on December 22, 2005

There is an interesting debate that is starting to emerge on the suitability of using UAVs for border security. DHS inspector general Richard Skinner provided some baseline data about UAV costs in his testimony last week on the Hill (see page 8 of pdf). This article discusses the general aviation community’s growing hesitancy about using UAVs – in part because of a natural preference for manned aircraft, but mainly because of worries about new TFRs. Defense Tech had a solid post on this subject a few days ago, which describes some of the unsolved airspace management issues that have slowed their implementation on the border.

The use of UAVs on the border is definitely not the same slam-dunk technology application that UAVs are in hostile and enemy territory, where one of their key differentiators is their higher risk tolerance to getting shot down. If it takes a ground crew of 20 people to operate one, as the inspector general testified, then I have a hard time seeing how they are cost-effective in comparison with small piloted planes – which obviously can’t stay in the air for 20 hours, but require little ground support. A decision on UAV deployment needs to be ultimately driven by rigorous cost-benefit analysis consistent with the “systems approach” to border security that Sec. Chertoff has talked about since July, most recently in his speech on Tuesday…not by the coolness factor of one technology over another.

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1 Comment »

39

Comment by CDR Mike Peterson, USN

January 3, 2006 @ 11:26 am

My Navy tactical squadron experience (F_14 / F/A-18F) dictates that small aircraft equipped with the same sensor packages would be as costly to operate as the UAS (I have no hard data, except the experience of adding new sensors to the aircraft and the increased in work required to maintain these sensors in a fully mission capable status). The real cost is in the sensors themselves and integration into the airframe. The advantage to small manned aircraft is that they eliminate the “see and avoid” requirement that the FAA uses to restrict UAS operations. They may not be safer however as most UAS missions occur at night where light plane operations are more dangerous, especially if dividing time between mission conduct and collision avoidance. As a WSO (weapon system operator), I would recommend a crewed aircraft to perform this mission if adapted by manned aviation. (Add in the cost of implementing a NVG-compatible cockpit into the light aircraft cost). Also statistics show that the majority of accidents occur in the landing pattern where UAS have a much better record than manned aviation. Since “sense and avoid” (S&A) technology is currently being pursued for most UAS, this discussion may be moot is a few years as UAS S&A technology is validated and fielded. The need to support UAS border protection missions is immediate. New airspace that would have to be restricted for UAS operations along the border (using a #-D altitude reservation concept) would have minimal impact on other aviation but allow UAS with current technology to support Homeland Security mission objectives until S&A technology or small manned aircraft with equivalent sensor packages can be fielded.

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