When discussing the Department of Homeland Security’s SBInet border security program, Mark Borkowski doesn’t pull any punches. “We frankly did not have a strong capacity to [develop the technologies], and that was part of the issue,” says the assistant commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection's technology office. “We probably could not defend the requirements we put forth with SBInet. It seemed like good things to do, but in retrospect, we really couldn’t say why we aspired to that.”
Launched in 2005 in an ambitious effort to line the border with a series of integrated fixed camera systems and sensors, the program was canceled by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in January 2011 with only a 53-mile segment being operational in Arizona. Those 53 miles cost taxpayers about $1 billion. In one of the last Lead Systems Integrator projects, Boeing had been brought aboard to manage the program in 2006, and prototype towers were installed in Arizona in February 2008. But a string of technical problems, cost issues and environmental concerns would doom the project.
The scuttling of the program led to a complete rethink of the department's border strategy. In many ways, the new plan for acquiring technology looks strikingly like the U.S. Army’s new acquisition plan: define capability gaps and then put the word out to industry to see what mature technologies they have already developed that might fit the bill. In other words, the DHS isn’t interested in developing new technologies. Rather, it will “start by using what technologies are available and using our experience with that to decide if [we] want something more.” Like the Army, DHS wants industry “to come and tell us what they have that is available to produce today,” he adds. “We want them to commit to what it will perform, and if we pick them we’ll hold them to that commitment on a firm fixed-price contract.”
Two of the largest items on Borkowski’s list are technologies that already exist in some form—Integrated Fixed Towers (IFT) and the Remote Video Surveillance System (RVSS). The government already operates both systems, but is looking for upgrades.
In a presolicitation notice released in February (the formal request for proposals is expected later this month), the DHS said that it wants sensors that can “detect and track” moving objects while providing near-real-time video back to operator workstations. The government says it plans to award the IFT contract by the end of fiscal 2012. The list of companies that has declared interest in the program reads like a who’s who of the defense industry, including Boeing, L-3, EADS, ITT, Harris, General Dynamics, Qinetiq, BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon.
In February, the DHS also posted a solicitation to upgrade its aging RVSSs, which Borkowsli says are “obsolescent—you can’t even find spare parts for them.” The RVSS makes use of multiple color cameras and thermal infrared detection video cameras.
DHS has come under fire for failing to take into account life-cycle costs when buying new equipment, but Borkowski says that will no longer be the case. “We considered 10 years of life-cycle costs as part of our estimate,” he says. “We asked the bidders to provide us options to continue to sustain these systems year to year until we can evolve to where we can pick that up under our existing capabilities to do operations and maintenance and drive the cost down that way.”
The plans have been made, and the requirements mostly set. (And don't forget those Strykers sent to the border or the big, new National Guard deployment to the border region.) Now comes the hard part: choosing which technologies to buy and getting them in place.