DoD And DEA Paid $86M For A Spy Plane That Never Got Off The Ground

Photo via Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General.

A joint effort by the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Department of Defense to modify a plane for counter-narcotics surveillance operations in Afghanistan never got off the ground; in fact, it never left the hangar. But it did leave a hefty bill: roughly $86 million in funding from the two agencies, according to The Washington Post — 10 times the aircraft’s original cost.

The ATR 500, a 75-foot long twin-prop aircraft typically configured for passenger flights, was purchased by the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Counternarcotics and Global Threats in September 2008 for $8.6 million. Called the Global Discovery Program, the hope was to outfit the bird with advanced surveillance technology and make it suitable for operations in a combat environment with the ultimate goal of flying counternarcotics missions for the DEA and DoD in Afghanistan.

Related: Criminal Probe Launched Over $28 Million ‘Forest’ Uniforms For Afghan Troops »

But it didn’t work out that way. Costs ballooned and delays added up.

[caption id="attachment_25967" align="aligncenter" width="840"]

[media-credit name="Photo via Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General." align="aligncenter" width="840"][/media-credit] The plane was modified for surveillance operations in Afghanistan, but even if it's flight ready by tomorrow, it'd be too late: The DEA no longer runs aviation ops in the country.[/caption]

“Even though collectively the DEA and DOD have spent more than $86 million on the Global Discovery program, we found that, over 7 years after the aircraft was purchased for the program, the aircraft remains inoperable, resting on jacks, and has never actually flown in Afghanistan,” reads a Sept. 13 report from the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General.

The program was plagued by a lack of clearly defined requirements for its modifications, and it faced missed deadlines, frequent personnel changes, and duplication of work — to include making, and then removing, bespoke mods.

[caption id="attachment_25968" align="aligncenter" width="840"]

[media-credit name="Photo via Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General." align="aligncenter" width="840"][/media-credit] An ATR 500 aircraft purchased by the Department of Defense and the Drug Enforcement Agency for $8.6 million ended up costing the agencies ten times that amount.[/caption]

Even if the aircraft was suddenly flight-ready today, it wouldn’t matter: The DEA no longer conducts aviation operations in Afghanistan, the report notes. Officials now hope to use the plane in other DEA areas of operation — like the Caribbean, Central America, and South America, according to The Washington Post.

It’s not like the military has a shortage of surveillance aircraft operating overseas — heck, they can even spare a few to occasionally circle over major U.S. cities, which makes this boondoggle particularly irksome. Especially when you consider the ATR 500’s market value in 2008 was about $6 million.


Jilmar Ramos-Gomez was a lance corporal in the Marines and received awards for service in Afghanistan. (Michigan ACLU)

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