The Coast Guard had Deepwater. The Army had Future Combat Systems. The Navy is struggling through the Littoral Combat Ship acquisition process. And now the Department of Homeland Security might soon add to this list of very expensive failures its $1 billion SBInet family of sensor technologies, once billed as a “virtual fence” that would provide real-time surveillance along the entire U.S./Mexican border.
Funded by a $3.6-billion allocation from Congress, Boeing has been the lead contractor on the program since receiving a three-year, indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contract in 2006 to integrate and implement its sensor technologies. As of February, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had awarded 13 task orders to Boeing for $1.2 billion, $800 million of which has gone to SBInet.
After four years of setbacks, technical problems, environmental controversies and cost overruns, that $800-million investment has only managed to cover about 53 miles of the Arizona border near Tuscon, and in March Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered a freeze on the program pending a top-to-bottom review. Mark Borkowski, executive director of the SBI program, recently told Aviation Week that when Napolitano took action in March, “we were still well behind our schedule. Tucson should have been completed and we should have had test data from it, so we were continuing to have delays and cost growth.” Borkowski hopes to have system acceptance tests on the Ajo towers complete by the end of the year.
One of the problems with the program, Borkowski concedes, is something that has plagued the Pentagon in recent years: reaching for a complicated technology-driven solution before reaching a full understanding of its costs. For one thing, there wasn’t any cost analysis done before the Department jumped into the SBInet program. “There was a certain urgency,” he says, “and a belief that this wouldn’t be all that hard to do. That belief turned out to be wrong.” Still, as my story in the November issue of DTI will attest, Border Protection agents in the Tuscon Sector absolutely love the SBInet technologies, saying that the cameras and sensors give them a clearer picture of what is coming across the border, and help ensure the agents affect the correct response when heading out to meet a potential threat.
A new Government Accountability Office report criticizes the DHS for failing to effectively monitor Boeing’s work on the stalled project, and failing to meet cost and schedule expectations. Specifically, the GAO charges that the DHS did not check that “validated performance baselines…were timely, complete, and accurate.” As a result, “DHS has not been able to gain meaningful and proactive insight into potential cost and schedule performance shortfalls, and thus take corrective actions to avoid shortfalls in the future.”
The DHS concurred with most of the recommendations, but in the long run it might not matter. Secretary Napolitano’s decision whether to continue work on the program (initial plans called for it to span the U.S./Mexico border) or to halt it in the Tuscon area is due any day now.