Observations on the Costs and Benefits of an Increased Department of Defense Role in Helping to Secure the Southwest Land Border

GAO-11-856R: Published: Sep 12, 2011. Publicly Released: Sep 12, 2011.

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Davi M. Dagostino
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In order to satisfy the requirement in the Ike Skelton National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011 to report on the security of the southwest land border of the United States, we briefed Congress on July 12, 2011, with our preliminary observations. This is our final report to Congress on the Department of Defense (DOD) issues we addressed in response to the mandate. As directed by the mandate, we assessed: (1) what is known about the costs and benefits of an increased DOD role to help achieve operational control over the southwest land border, including the deployment of additional units, the National Guard, or other DOD personnel; increased use of ground-based mobile surveillance systems by military personnel; and use of additional mobile patrols by military personnel, particularly in rural, high-trafficked areas; and (2) what is known about the costs and benefits of an increased deployment of additional unmanned aerial systems and manned aircraft to provide surveillance; as well as the impact of any increased deployment of unmanned aerial systems or manned aircraft on national airspace use and availability..

The cost of an increased DOD role to help achieve operational control over the southwest land border is determined largely by the legal status and mission of military personnel being used, specifically whether military personnel are responding under Title 32 or Title 10 of the United States Code. If Title 32 National Guard forces are used, factors that may impact the cost include whether in-state or out-of-state personnel are used, the number of personnel, duration of the mission, ratio of officers to enlisted personnel, as well as equipment and transportation needs. The costs of Title 32 National Guard forces working at the border can also be impacted by specific missions. For example, if National Guardsmen are to conduct patrols (as discussed in the mandate), they are to be assigned in pairs and would, therefore, require twice as many personnel as the Border Patrol to perform only the identification segment of the mission because they are not permitted to make arrests or seizures. Currently, National Guard personnel assigned to the southwest border are only identifying those individuals attempting to enter the United States and relaying such information to the Border Patrol for possible arrest. The estimated DOD cost has been about $1.35 billion for two separate border operations conducted by the National Guard forces in Title 32 status from June 2006 to July 2008 and again from June 2010 through September 30, 2011. Efforts of active-duty Title 10 forces at the border are generally conducted under authorities that allow DOD to provide military support to law enforcement agencies for counterdrug operations. Since 1989, DOD estimates the cost of using active duty Title 10 forces nationwide in support of drug law enforcement agencies (with additional operational costs borne by the military services) at about $10 million annually. According to officials we spoke with, the primary benefits of an increased role for DOD to help achieve operational control over the southwest land border include providing a bridge or augmentation until newly hired Border Patrol agents are trained and deployed to the border, obtaining training opportunities in a geographically inhospitable environment similar to current combat theaters, contributing to apprehensions and seizures along the border, deterring illegal activity at the border, building relationships with law enforcement agencies, and maintaining and strengthening military-to-military relationships with Mexico. DOD and DHS include different cost factors for deploying manned and unmanned aircraft, and therefore the costs are not comparable. Also, DOD's access to the national airspace is constrained given the safety concerns about unmanned aerial systems raised by the Federal Aviation Administration, specifically the challenges inherent with the unmanned aerial system's ability to detect, sense, and avoid an aircraft. Deploying additional unmanned aerial systems to provide surveillance would improve coverage, real-time imagery, and allow longer mission duration. For example, the Predator B provides a mission duration of 20-30 hours, depending on mission configuration and operational parameters, because there is no need to land and change pilots. On the other hand, we found that, unlike the unmanned aircraft, manned aircraft, whose pilots have the ability to see and avoid other aircraft, may have more routine access to the national airspace. Further, DOD has limited availability of unmanned aerial systems and manned aircraft along the border because these systems are needed to support missions abroad. Officials from DHS reported during our review that they had 7 unmanned aerial system aircraft to provide response and monitoring capabilities throughout North America, and - funding permitting - they plan to expand their fleet to 24 total UASs that are operational by Fiscal Year 2016, including 11 on the southwest border. We are not making any recommendations for agency action in this report.

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