DHS Claims Success with Fifth Attempt to Virtually Secure the Border
By Sylvia Longmire
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Along with immigration reform, the barrier along our nation’s southwest border with Mexico is one of the most controversial aspects of the ongoing border security debate. While some groups call for the complete removal of the border fence, others are loudly calling for an additional 1,300 miles of barrier to be built in order to “seal” the border from end to end.
Debate about the feasibility of either idea aside, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been looking for a successful technology solution to fill in the surveillance gaps in the empty spaces between the physical barriers and human eyes, a.k.a. Border Patrol agents. The largest attempt to bridge these gaps began in 2006 under the umbrella of the Secure Border Initiative, known as SBInet. US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) began a project nicknamed the “virtual fence” that would link decades-old underground sensors, radar towers, and communications networks into an integrated invisible surveillance system.
The contract with Boeing was supposed to be completed in two years and cost roughly $220 million. However, cost increases, time delays, and general human incompetence caused the virtual fence project to get pushed back to 2011 and costs to skyrocket to almost $1 billion. Then-DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, with no functioning system to show for five years and a billion dollars worth of effort, scrapped the project in 2011 in favor of a more “off the shelf” solution that DHS would start looking for years later. The more frustrating part of this Holy Grail of border tech solutions is that there were three attempts to perform this integration prior to SBInet, called ISIS, ICAD-I, and ICAD-II. None were successful, and cost the US government hundreds of millions of dollars.
However, after two years of searching for a solution provider and crafting a strategy, DHS believes the current iteration of its virtual barrier is the final answer. Arizona is currently the test bed for the Integrated Fixed Tower project—formally known as the Arizona Border Surveillance Technology Plan—which aims to erect 52 sensor-laden towers along the southwest border by the year 2020. To date, seven towers are fully operational around the Arizona border city of Nogales. The solar-powered towers are about 80 feet tall, with radar and day-and-night cameras that send real-time video footage to a Border Patrol command post.
Fernando Grijalva, assistant chief over the communications department in the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, told the Arizona Daily Star that once the entire program is completed, it will give the Border Patrol 90 percent situational awareness, which basically means knowing what’s going on. Jose Verdugo, Border Patrol agent and operator in the Nogales station, said, “We are able to see in areas we weren’t able to see before. It’s like turning on a light switch.”
But even before potential operability issues can be addressed, DHS has to overcome the heavy objections of lawmakers who don’t want to see a repeat of the overspending and mismanagement that characterized SBInet. When the newest Arizona plan was unveiled, the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) said CBP hadn’t adequately explained how it determined that strategy is better than other alternatives. It also hadn’t defined the mission benefits expected by constructing the network. A March 2014 GAO report indicated CBP lacked an integrated master schedule for all components of the plan, that it had not independently verified total life-cycle cost estimates and that its plan did not call for testing towers in different weather conditions. Top CBP officials have estimated the total cost for the Arizona plan at $500 million to $700 million, including operation and management for 10 years.
Arizona Republicans Rep. Martha McSally and Sen. John McCain have resorted to legislation in an attempt to hold DHS more accountable. They introduced The Border Security Technology Accountability Act of 2015, a bill they said would improve the management and accountability of new border technology. The Act, which passed in the House this past summer, would require each border technology acquisition program over $300 million to have baseline cost, schedule and performance targets. According to a press release, McSally said the bill follows numerous reports showing DHS acquisition programs are a “high-risk” for waste, fraud, and abuse. “Southern Arizonans are demanding better border security,” she said, “and they expect us to do it in the most cost-effective and efficient way possible.”
Why DHS officials are so confident the Arizona plan will work better than previous solutions is unclear, and there are already signs of delays and management problems. In mid-2015, CBP Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition Assistant Commissioner Mark Borkowski testified before Congress that new border wall surveillance infrastructure and technology are already failing to meet management deadlines. According to Homeland Security Newswire,he also acknowledged the GAO report in his testimony, saying, “the plan… is admittedly behind schedule…” Unfortunately, in such a situation where tax dollars have already been allocated and construction has begun, government watchdogs and taxpayers alike can only sit, watch, and wait to see if they will get a good return on their investment.