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DEA drug fighting plane doesn’t fly, but costs soar

A DEA counter-narcotics airplane sits on jacks in Delaware after never getting off the ground for its intended operations in Afghanistan.

The boondoggle of the week award goes to the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Defense Department.

They joined forces to combat illegal drugs in Afghanistan, but ended up with an expensive plane that, like their grand plans, won’t fly.

But the cost has soared.

The plan was for DOD to modify a DEA plane to be used in counter-narcotics operations in a combat zone. DEA purchased an ATR 500 aircraft in September 2008 for $8.6 million. Eight years later, the cost of the program has ballooned without the plane ever getting off the ground for its intended mission.

The Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General (IG) determined “collectively, the DEA and DOD spent more than $86 million to purchase and modify a DEA aircraft with advanced surveillance equipment to conduct operations in the combat environment of Afghanistan, in what became known as the Global Discovery Program.  We found that more than 7 years after the aircraft was purchased for the program, it remains inoperable, resting on jacks in Delaware, and has never flown in Afghanistan.”

In a report released Wednesday, the IG delivered a list of problems with the program, including repeated missed deadlines and vastly blown budgets. Even if the plane magically flew tomorrow, it would be too late for the DEA mission in Afghanistan. The agency ended its aviation operations there in July. Now DEA plans to use the aircraft in less hostile places like the Caribbean, Central America and South America, with June being the earliest projected date.

“However, even if they can meet that new target date, DEA and DOD officials estimate that the aircraft will not be completed with all previously agreed-upon modifications,” Christine Hinton-Martinez, leader of an IG team of auditors based in San Francisco, said in a podcast.

Army Lt. Col. Valerie Henderson, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said DOD “eliminated funding for the program in the Fiscal Year 16 budget, however we continue to manage a firm-fixed-price contract that requires the upgraded aircraft be delivered by June of this year.”

When the Federal Insider asked DEA to comment, the response was short boilerplate: “Reviews by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) are necessary and important, and DEA welcomes recommendations that make us better.  DEA agrees that it can and should provide better oversight of its operational funding.  We are reviewing policies and procedures to ensure the limited resources allocated to DEA are utilized in the most responsible and effective way possible.”

In a more detailed response to the inspector general’s office, DEA pointed its finger at DOD, which supported the program with $29 million.

DEA said it “had previous positive experiences utilizing DoD contractors for modifying DEA aircraft.” The “significant difference” this time was previously “DEA utilized its own funding, and therefore, had the latitude to be more involved in the modification process. Based upon that previous experience, DEA had no indication that the Global Discovery modification would encounter the significant delays and problems that ultimately occurred.”

DEA must have had a clue at some point. The report says the project was to have been finished in December 2012, “but it has missed every intended delivery date that has been established.”

Problems with the project go beyond the delays and cost overruns and start with the airplane’s purchase. The IG said DEA did not fully comply with acquisition regulations and did not consider “the time and cost it would incur to establish an infrastructure of pilots, mechanics, trainers, and spare parts required to operate the aircraft.”

DEA awarded a $1.9 million contract in December 2012 to build a hanger specifically for the ATR 500 at the Kabul International Airport, but the IG said the plane “will most likely never be housed in the hanger.”

By October 2014, DOD officials considered dumping the program, according to the report. About $65.9 million had been spent at that point and another $6 million in repairs was needed.

“Yet, at that time,” said the IG report, “the market value of the ATR 500 was only $6 million.”

The inspector general’s office provided information about the DEA aircraft in a multimedia presentation at this link.

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