Now that the Department of Homeland Security has capped its $800 million SBInet border surveillance program at only 53 mi. of Arizona borderland, the government has been scrambling to find other ways to get better situational awareness of who and what is trying to get across the Arizona/Mexico border.
Since January, the DHS has released several requests to industry for non-developmental, mature, operationally-proven camera and surveillance equipment that can be quickly delivered and installed along the border to do the job SBInet was being developed to do. The agency has also said that it plans on spending an additional $750 million over the next several years in order to finish the job just along the Arizona border. This means that when all is said and done, installing sensor equipment just along the Arizona section of the border will have cost the DHS a staggering $1.5 billion … but there is, on some level, some upside to this development—let’s call it a positive negative. Through a very expensive and frustrating back and forth, the government finally thinks it has a handle on the kinds of technologies—and the kind of acquisition strategy—it needs along the southwest border, and SBInet’s failures may very well end up ushering in a new era in technology procurement for the DHS, one that just might transform how the United States polices its borders.
In this second go at stitching together a picture of the border with cameras, radar, ground sensors, unmanned assets, and of course, Border Patrol agents, Mark Borkowski of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) says the days of searching for the perfect solution, and giving industry the benefit of the doubt, are over.
At an industry day event in Phoenix last month, Borkowski told a room full of industry hopefuls vying for a crack at a portion of that $750 million that if the gear they provide isn’t exactly what was promised and delivered at exactly the price agreed upon, “we will terminate you for default.” Quite simply, “if you don’t know what it costs, then you’re not ready to sell to us.”
I recently asked Borkowski about the DHS’ technology strategy moving forward, now that the plan is to buy multiple, proven sensor and camera systems that will need to be integrated into a common operating picture. He said that a big part of this new strategy “is laying out a more comprehensive technology deployment that is reasonable in terms of cost, is defensible with what we do know [we need], but which recognizes that what we want to do is get something out there without necessarily shooting for the moon.”
Sounds an awful lot like what secretary Gates has been saying about “exquisite” technologies, and the need to look at “good enough” solutions when gear needs to be deployed quickly to meet urgent needs.
One of the issues that Borkowski highlighted in our chat was the fact that the Border Patrol in many respects hasn’t internalized the use of technology in its everyday field operations, making acquisition up to this point somewhat of an experimental process. “We don’t have a lot of experience with technology as a core part of how we do business in border security,” he said. “It’s something that if we have it we bring to the fight, but it’s not something that’s embedded with years and years of history, in the way that we routinely do business.” In many cases, agents still rely on binoculars, setting ambushes, and riding horses in areas inaccessible to cars and trucks, so there is very little baseline capability with which to build from. “We’re not to the question of better or more [technology] now,” he said, “we’re to the question of at all.” He says that he is now trying to build a cost-effective, “prudent baseline of technology” that can be embedded in CBP operations so that the agency will at some point be “in a better position to talk about future technology investments, and future requirements.”
There is a real sense that the DHS overshot with the SBInet technology concept, much like the Army did with its now-scuttled Future Combat Systems family of sensors and vehicles, and is now pulling back on the search for perfect solutions, in favor of trying to meet the minimum requirements for getting the job done.