Defense Media Network

The Next New Virtual Border Fence?

In asking for a border surveillance system strongly resembling the one it just killed, DHS has many observers scratching their heads

On Jan. 18,  the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency (CBP) released a Request for Information (RFI) in which it expressed interest in commercial off-the-shelf solutions “for deployment at fixed, elevated sites, hereafter referred to as Integrated Fixed Towers, that would provide automated, persistent wide-area surveillance for the detection, tracking, identification, and classification of illegal entries. The capability sought would provide additional situational awareness and will allow CBP to more efficiently and effectively respond to border incursions where deployed.”

The RFI raised eyebrows among homeland security experts who closely followed the doomed trajectory of a system conceived in 2005 to bring integrated cameras and sensors to the entire U.S./Mexican land border: the Secure Border Initiative Network, or SBInet.

The history of SBInet is complicated, but can be summed up as follows: a contract award to Boeing Co. in 2006; a 28-mile prototype, widely panned, that began operating in February 2008; and a newer 53-mile segment, including a leg near Tucson, Ariz., that underwent a favorable round of evaluations in the fall of 2010. Plagued by cost overruns, delays, management problems, and technical glitches (the radar often failed in the rain, and camera resolutions proved too weak), SBInet was cancelled by DHS after a year-long reassessment.

One of the problems with the SBInet prototype, agreed both DHS and Boeing, was that commercially available technology with the capability to meet the network’s goals did not exist. With its effective Tucson-anchored leg, Boeing seemed to be, in the eyes of its evaluators, on the way to developing this technology – reducing manpower needs while providing real-time data on potential border-crossing attempts.

So why does the new RFI specify that the new system use commercially available technology – which DHS has already agreed, at least tacitly, does not exist? Outsiders are baffled. Rick Nelson, Director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “Except for a few minor modifications … the RFI looks exactly like the original SBInet proposal did.”

A Flawed Process

Part of the confusion about the RFI stems from a closely guarded “alternatives analysis,” concluded at the end of summer 2010, that examined four scenarios for deploying technology to the border. In those scenarios, SBInet alone didn’t win the day. In response to the analysis, DHS, taking a Department of Defense-style approach, decided to kill the program rather than chase its spiraling costs.

The problem with taking a DoD-style approach to acquisitions, said Nelson, is that DHS’s acquisitions workforce doesn’t have nearly the size or maturity of the Defense Department’s – and it bears much of the blame for the shortcomings of SBInet. “Boeing, the prime contractor, arguably underbid and overpromised,” Nelson said, “and they’re culpable in that regard. But I place the majority of the blame on DHS and the acquisition process, because they’re ultimately responsible for making sure the contract is being executed accordingly, and they didn’t do that. They shifted the requirement, I think, on Boeing, and they made it very difficult. So it was a situation where it was new in DHS’s history. They lacked the acquisition workforce to execute a contract of this scale. And these contractors are all new relative to the homeland security enterprise, and they were trying to be first to market with what they thought was going to be a good product.”

Looking ahead, Nelson sees two issues emerging: first, the insistence that a new Integrated Fixed Tower system use commercial off-the-shelf technology is almost certainly going to have to be dropped. “Sole reliance on commercial-off-the-shelf technology is not practical in the operating environments we’re expecting this stuff to operate in,” he said. “It’s the same reason why commercial off-the-shelf technology doesn’t work in the middle of the Indian Ocean to shoot down cruise missiles.”

Second, and more important for the bigger picture of homeland security, is that DHS is going to have to improve its acquisitions process in order to attract the best solutions from the best contractors. The Jan. 18 RFI is not, to Nelson, a signal that the agency has learned from its mistakes. “My concern with the cancellation is that punishing the prime contractor at a time when you’re trying to build up the homeland security industrial base may not be the best long-term idea,” he said. “Some of these traditional defense industry-focused companies, like Boeing and Northrop Grumman, may find it’s not worth their time to invest in the homeland security enterprise if it’s too difficult to get the requirements articulated, and if the contract is going to be mismanaged. Again, I’m not saying all parties weren’t at fault, but at the end of the day, DHS was the one ultimately responsible for getting what they contracted.”


Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...