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Drones Are Coming to a Theater Near You


“The UAVs, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, are coming.”  So says Candice Miller, the Republican congresswoman from the Michigan borderlands near Detroit.

She should know. Miller chairs the Border and Maritime Security of the House Committee on Homeland Security, which oversees the Department of Homeland Security’s rush to deploy drones to keep the homeland secure.

In practice, there’s more boosterism than effective oversight in the House Homeland Security Committee and in Miller’s subcommittee.

The same holds true for most of the more than one hundred other congressional committees that purportedly oversee the DHS and its budget. Since the creation of DHS in 2003 Congress has routinely approved annual and supplementary budgets for border security that have been higher than those requested by the president and DHS.

One reason for the proliferation of DHS oversight committees is interest by congressional representatives like Miller in increasing DHS operations – and associated federal pork – in their districts. Another is the widespread and eminently bipartisan desire by politicians to demonstrate their commitment to border security, immigration enforcement, and counterterrorism.

Pentagon Filling Capacity Gaps at Home

Miller, who frequently displays her familiarity with military jargon, advocates the increased use of military technology for border and homeland security. She points to the increasing and allegedly successful use of the grimly baptized Predator and Reaper drones by DHS as an example of how military technology “used in theater in Iraq and Afghanistan” can be easily adopted to “fill capacity gaps at home.”

On November 15 Miller presided over a congressional hearing to explore how DHS can find technological solutions to homeland and border security in the military technology that is “coming back from theater.”

The DHS is the lead federal agency in bringing drones to the home theater, although the Department of Justice is also working closely with aviation technology manufacturers and local law enforcement agencies to introduce drones to police and sheriffs departments.

The Pentagon is also playing a major role in the planning to open more U.S. airspace for drone testing and deployment for national defense and homeland security, while U.S. military and National Guard bases are hosting DHS drones.

Another major player, of course, is the UAV industry, which is eager to open up not only U.S. airspace but also the international market for public and private drone operations.

Drone undoubtedly will play an increasing role in military, homeland security, border security, and law enforcement operations. Miller is certainly right that drones are coming.

Escalation Without Review

But as drones start coming to a theater near you, there is little reason to believe that government has exercised the due diligence and proper oversight when reviewing drone deployment plans.

Much of the enthusiasm for drones stems from the much-touted success of drones in military missions, particularly in hunting down and killing terrorists in South Asia and the Middle East.

But overseas drone operations have rapidly escalated in the absence of strategic review of the long-term consequences for international law, U.S. overseas missions, and U.S. national security.

News that a U.S. stealth drone – a RQ-170 manufactured by Lockheed Martin — apparently crashed on Iranian soil underscored fears of critics of drone proliferation that the technology will inevitably fall into hostile hands.  The crash highlighted, too, the high crash rate of drones as the result of technological communications failures and the absence of onboard piloting.

At home, drone deployment is marching ahead without any cost-benefit evaluations, impact studies, or even any assessments about which UAVs might best meet DHS perceived needs. With respect to homeland security, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is simply purchasing the hugely expensive unarmed versions of the Predator and Reaper UAVs (manufactured by General Atomics) that are currently deployed in overseas wars and interventions.

Neither the Obama administration nor Congress has insisted that CBP provide documentation to support its repeated assertions that UAV’s function as “force multiplier” for the Border Patrol and that drone patrols have substantially improved “border security.” What is more, CBP has failed to demonstrate that it has sufficient skilled personnel and the required logistical capability to operate UAVs successfully.

Drone Boosterism

The House proponents of expanded drone operations have their own caucus. Cong. Buck McKeon, the powerful Republican who represents the southern California’s 25th district, created the UAV Caucus – now called the Unmanned Systems Caucus — in 2009. McKeon also chairs the House Armed Services Committee, where he promotes drone use in foreign wars.

Under Miller’s chairmanship, the Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee, has become another major font of drone boosterism.  The committee’s ranking member is Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar, who represents the border district of Laredo. Cuellar also serves as cochair of the Unmanned Systems Caucus.

Miller is effusive and unconditional in her support of drones. In subcommittee hearings, Miller has described herself variously as a “very strong” and “huge” supporter of UAVs.  Miller has repeatedly called UAVs a “fantastic technology.”

Describing why UAVs are a fantastic instrument for border security, Miller describes the drones as the new wave of combat operations – where strikes and surveillance occur without risking U.S. lives.

At the March 15, 2011 subcommittee hearing on border technology, Miller, whose husband served as commander of the Selfridge Air Base (which DHS is considering as a UAV operations control center), said: “You know, my husband was a fighter pilot in Vietnam theater, so—from another generation, but I told him, I said, ‘’Dear, the glory days of the fighter jocks are over.’ “

The UAVs are coming, continued Miller, “and now you see our military siting in a cubicle sometimes in Nevada, drinking a Starbucks, running these things in theater and being incredibly, incredibly successful.”

The close association of drones and national security abroad and the new linking of UAVs with homeland and border security may shield budgetary and strategic decisions about drones from any critical oversight.

Proponents of the deployment of drones for border security have long framed their advocacy in terms of national security.

Cuellar, who was a leading force behind the provision to include $32 million for two more CBP drones in last year’s “emergency” supplemental border security bill, offered what is the now typical linking of border security, national security, and the war against terrorists at a committee hearing on UAVs.

According to Cuellar, “UAVs are one more tool for us to stay steps ahead and leaps above the threats that we face, and they can help deter and prevent illegal activity and threats to terrorism against the United States.”

At one recent oversight hearing, Miller made the argument that what is good enough in foreign operations should also be the standard at home.  “Certainly,” she stated, “when we see ourselves involved in theater, in Iraq and Afghanistan, I mean, even in South Korea at the DMZ, we are securing borders for other countries, and we can’t secure our own border.”

What’s more, drones are apparently near risk-free, in Miller’s estimation: “You know, they are flying along at very high altitudes, 50,000- plus feet. Too bad if you lose one, but guess what? You didn’t lose a soldier.”

Miller demands that such Pentagon technology that has proved “so incredibly successful in theater” be used more extensively as a ‘force multiplier to support the incredible efforts, again, of our brave border agents.”

The facile merger of national security and border control is eroding the traditional constitutional and statutory barriers between the military and domestic law enforcement.

Miller advocates the creation of a special Pentagon office to facilitate the transfer of military technology to DHS, and she, like many border security hawks, backs increased National Guard deployment along the southern and northern borders.

The creation of the Department of Homeland Security — and the associated framing of immigration and border enforcement as security operations – has fostered a conceptual integration of national security and border control.

This post-9/11 strategic framework of border control and immigration policy as security issues has also bred a new militarism among congressional immigration and border security hawks.

Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), who chairs the Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management, has led the pack of border security hawks with his alarmist assessments of border threats – on exhibit in the Line in the Sand: Confronting the Threat at the Southwest Border report issued the by Republican members of the subcommittee in 2006. McCaul is also a leading voice for drone deployment both along the border and in Mexico, while also raising the possibility of the need for direct U.S. military intervention in Mexico.

The new border-related militarism pervades the proceedings of the House Homeland Security Committee, while also routine in the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, chaired by one of Senate’s leading hawks, Joe Lieberman, the formerly Democratic senator from Connecticut.

The unblinking acceptance of the new militarism around border security – whether in deploying Predator and Reaper drones or in considering direct military involvement in operations to “secure the border” – is especially evident in the homeland security hearings chaired by Miller.

During the March 15 hearing Miller repeatedly proposed using Stryker Combat Brigades (all-terrain fighting vehicles first used in Iraq invasion) on the border. “If you have a Marine Stryker brigade on the other side of that border, I think those drug cartels are going to think twice about coming across that,” suggested Miller, who has also raised the possibility of “really utilizing various types of armaments that we do use in theater to secure the border.”

Miller also advocates the inclusion of a border security mission into all National Guard units and expanding Guard deployment along the border, “and perhaps other units of the military.”

But Miller wants the National Guard presence on the border to be more than “good optics,” and has expressed her concern that the Guard is “constrained by DOD regulations” – presumably referring to Posse Comitatus Act restrictions on using the U.S. military for domestic law enforcement.

Miller has been careful not clarify that she isn’t critical of the job that CBP agents are doing: “You do a wonderful, fabulous job. But I think we need to beef it up.”

Tom Barry directs the TransBorder Project at the Center for International Policy and is the author of Border Wars  from MIT Press. See his work at


Tom Barry directs the Transborder Program at the Center for International Policy and is a contributor to the Americas Program

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