When the Department of Homeland Security announced on Jan. 14, 2011, that it would cancel funding for the ambitious Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet) – an integrated system of personnel, infrastructure, technology, and rapid response capability on the northern and southern land borders – it left some doubt about how the decision would affect DHS’s overall strategy for border surveillance. The program, which consisted of traditional fencing, a tower-based sensor array or “virtual fence,” portable GPS devices, and airborne sensors, was meant to provide a common operating picture of the borders for federal, state, and local partners. What will the death of SBInet mean, in both the short and long term, for this common operating picture?
DHS, it seems, is still trying to figure that out. Its present border security strategy, in the absence of the kind of broad technological fix embodied by an SBInet type of program, is described as a “point-defense” approach by Rick Nelson, Director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The administration emphasizes UAV technologies, vehicles with sensors and detectors, more CBP officers,” he said. “Those are certainly necessary items. My issue is that you can’t cover these large expanses, vast unguarded portions of our border, with more people and vehicles.”
In recent years, Congress and DHS have demonstrated a fascination with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for patrolling the nation’s borders. UAVs have been in the air on the southern border since 2004, when DHS sent up two Hermes 450 UAVs to supplement manned patrols. The department’s fleet of UAVs now stands at six low- to medium-altitude Predator B remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs, in contrast to the autonomously operating “drones”), all operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP’s) Air & Marine (A&M) Branch.
In June of 2010, the Congressional Research Service released a report on the use of UAVs to surveil the international land borders of the United States. The report concluded that despite many potential benefits – including better coverage and a wider range of operations – UAVs, especially the five-ton Predator Bs, are a pricey and surprisingly manpower-intensive solution for a department desperately trying to contain costs. Predators and other UAVs get into more accidents than manned flights, the report said; their capabilities are hindered by bad weather; and they can cost more than twice as much to operate as a manned aircraft. A single UAV may require a crew of up to 20 agents, according to the CRS analysis; given CBP’s own estimate of the cost of operating a single Predator – $3,234 an hour – it costs about $28.5 million to keep one UAV in the air every hour of the year. On top of a purchase price of $4.5 million each, that is far too costly, critics say, for the Predator to serve as a mainstay for border surveillance.
Predators also require significant infrastructure and logistics. Despite its own shortcomings and cost overruns, the “virtual fence” of SBInet seems to have offered a far better alternative, in terms of manpower needs and coverage, to border surveillance in remote areas.
Even as it canceled its contract with Boeing to continue developing SBInet, DHS realized this: four days after the cancellation, it released a Request for Information on the possibility of deploying a system of “integrated fixed towers” that could give automated real-time information about what’s happening on the border.
As it developed SBInet, Boeing had projected that smaller UAVs—such as the Israeli-made Skylark, which weighs 12 pounds, can be packed into a backpack, and be deployed from anywhere in the field – might be useful for closing coverage gaps in the virtual fence, in rugged areas where building and maintaining towers is impractical. Such a scaled-down, supplementary role makes much more sense, said Rick Nelson, than a fleet of dozens of Predators in the skies over the Southwest border.
“Something like the virtual fence that’s being proposed by CBP – and like what Boeing was working on – can be manned by a much smaller number of people,” Nelson said. “It has a greater array of sensors. It’s constantly aware and vigilant. As they always say, the solution to any sort of security problem is going to be a layered defense – and the UAV can be a part of that, but it can’t be the ultimate solution. It’s just not practical.”