Congressional appropriators reserved about $100 million in the fiscal 2008 budget for the Homeland Security Department to use unmanned aerial vehicles to control the nation's borders but only if the department meets certain conditions.
Appropriators expressed strong support for UAVs as part of the department's border security strategy. The funding is part of a comprehensive spending bill that Congress cleared Wednesday.
"As evidenced by the significant increases in border security funding in this bill, the committees on Appropriations support the goal of obtaining operational control of the nation's borders and coastlines," appropriators wrote in a report accompanying the bill. They said they "included funding to hire additional Border Patrol agents; install vehicle barriers, ground-based radar and cameras; and procure unmanned aerial systems."
The measure includes $2.7 billion in emergency funding for border security, of which $82 million could be used to buy new UAVs, a congressional aide said. Outside of emergency funds, the bill would provide about $15 million for the department to support existing UAV operations.
Customs and Border Protection, which manages the department's UAVs used for border security, is evaluating the budget bill and how new funds could best be used, a spokesman said.
The spokesman said the agency bought its third Predator B from contractor General Atomics this week. He said the department plans to buy three additional Predators in 2008. One would be deployed to the northern border, another to the southwest border and the third to Florida to support maritime operations, he said.
Appropriators, however, placed conditions on the UAVs. The bill would direct CBP to submit an updated expenditure plan for its air and marine operations, including certification that new UAV procurements support the agency's priorities and are the most effective use of funding.
Appropriators stipulated that the agency must evaluate the potential of UAVs "to significantly enhance [department] intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities against investments in proven, manned aviation assets."
Additionally, appropriators directed the agency to develop a plan for how UAVs will be used in both the civilian airspace and over water, and how the mission of the agency's UAVs will be coordinated with other government agencies.
Specifically, the agency must work with the Federal Aviation Administration to test the safety of UAVs and to determine the risk of mid-air collisions with manned aircraft. To that end, CBP also must work with the FAA to evaluate whether special rules are needed for small-scale UAVs, appropriators said.
The budget bill would rescind $132 million for the Coast Guard's offshore patrol cutter and UAV. The assets are part of the Coast Guard's Deepwater fleet-modernization program, which has come under fire for a myriad of problems and has been restructured. "Both of these programs are in a state of pre-acquisition and development," appropriators wrote.
Instead, the bill would provide funding for the Coast Guard to research and test what would be the most effective UAV for the agency to use. A total of $25 million was provided for Coast Guard research, development, testing and evaluation, but it is not clear how much of that is for the UAV.