By Calvin Biesecker

The Predator unmanned aerial vehicles being operated by Customs and Border Protection along the nation’s northern and southern borders and in the maritime environment are not expensive to operate compared to manned aircraft, the head of the agency’s Air and Marine branch told Congress last week.

In the maritime role, the cost per hour to operate the Guardian variant of Predator is about half the cost of operating a P-3 manned aircraft, Michael Kostelnik, assistant commissioner for CBP’s Office of Air and Marine, told a House Homeland Security Committee panel. In comparison to the agency’s new Multirole Enforcement Aircraft (MEA), the per hour operating costs are about the same as the Predator, he said.

A new P-3 aircraft will cost about $80 million whereas a Guardian UAV costs about $18 million, including the airframe, ground control station and satellite time, Kostelnik said. Both aircraft are used for maritime operations. The per hour flight cost to operate a P-3 is about $7,000 versus about $3,500 for the Guardian, he said.

The light aircraft, twin-engine MEA, which will begin to enter CBP’s inventory this year, has similar capabilities to a Predator and costs about $20 million per aircraft and will cost about $4,000 per hour to operate, Kostelnik said.

Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) said during the hearing that while Predators can operate up to 20 hours, they haven’t been flying missions that long. Kostelnik replied that while some Predator missions have lasted 20 hours, mission times have been limited by an ongoing shortage of pilots and launch and recovery personnel. A 20-hour mission requires two flight crews–each of which consists of a pilot and sensor operator–and a launch and recover crew, Kostelnik said.

In fact, there is more air space that Predators are certified to fly in along the country’s northern and southern borders than there are UAVs to fly in, Kostelnik said.

CBP currently has 850 pilots, up from about 535 in 2005, Kostelnik said. Currently, the agency has about 60 pilots that are either dedicated to UAV missions or who are dual qualified to fly manned and unmanned aircraft "and it’s still not enough," he said. The biggest manpower shortfall is for crews to launch and recover the UAVs, he added.

Having enough manpower to operate the Predators would also help reduce their operating costs, Kostelnik said. That’s because costs are "heavily driven by the launch and recover" phases of flight where tires get burned up and extra fuel is expended, he said.

"So oddly enough the longer you can fly an aircraft the more cost-effective it’s going to be," Kostelnik said. "So if we had the pilots we’d certainly be flying our Predators 20 hours…so we’d get a much better fully loaded operational cost of the system."

CBP does fly Predators in its "high end" missions for between 15 and 16 hours while a lot of missions last about 10 hours and others, including training, less, Kostelnik said.

The Predators have unique capabilities and characteristics not found in many of the agency’s other aircraft, Kostelnik said. For one, the lack of a crew inside a UAV means the payload can be taken up with sensors and other technology, longer endurance, extended nighttime missions, and a harder time being seen from the ground because the Predator is smaller than other manned fixed-wing assets, he said.

Kostelnik also pointed to the ongoing nuclear power reactor disaster in Japan and said if such an incident were to happen in the United States, the Predator could be used for flyover if there is concern about pilots coming in contact with leaking radiation to get situational awareness and assess critical infrastructure.

Duncan also raised the question of the potential service life of the Predator systems, noting that some of CBP’s manned platforms are more than 20 years old. Kostelnik said that some of CBP’s manned aircraft are approaching 40 years of service life and he doesn’t think UAVs will be any different.

The Predator is basically a "classic airplane," built with technologies that are easy to repair and replace, Kostelnik said. The agency has had several incidents during landings of Predators where the aircraft were damaged yet for "very small amounts of money" they have been back ready to fly, he said.

"Because of the composites these aircraft are [built with], replacing wings, replacing tails, they’re much easier and much cheaper" to fix "than a classic metal type aircraft," he said. "So I think the story in the long run is going to be a good one."

CBP currently has seven Predator UAVs with two more on order. Ultimately, the agency hopes to have 24 of the aircraft, which are built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.