In all of the talk about the flameout of SBInet, the Department of Homeland Security’s attempt to blanket the U.S./Mexico border with an integrated suite of sensors, cameras, and radar to give border patrol agents unprecedented situational awareness over the areas they cover, not many people mention that SBInet isn’t actually going anywhere.
After over a billion dollars spent and only 53 miles of Arizona desert covered by the technology, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano finally pulled the plug on the expansion of the program last week, but committed to keeping SBInet up and running in the two sectors where it is already operating, where it's effectiveness has made it popular with border patrol agents.
A DHS study released last week trumpeted a “new way forward for technology in Arizona” that will cost less than $750 million and will cover the 323 miles of Arizona border that SBInet doesn’t.
The big lesson the DHS learned in trying a one-size fits all approach to border security is that no matter how sophisticated the technology, the terrain still gets a vote. After conducting an analysis of its approach, the department found that “the selection of technology for a given area of the border is highly dependent on the nature of that area,” and that “the optimal technology deployment strategy would involve a mix of technology options tailored to each area of the border.”
And it only took half a decade and a billion dollars to figure that out. The new plan:
will utilize existing, proven technology tailored to the distinct terrain and population density of each border region, including commercially available Mobile Surveillance Systems, Unmanned Aircraft Systems, thermal imaging devices, and tower-based Remote Video Surveillance Systems. Where appropriate, this technology plan will also include elements of the former SBInet program that have proven successful, such as stationary radar and infrared and optical sensor towers.
What's that all mean? We can start with the 2010 Emergency Border Security Supplemental Appropriations Act, which will pay for $14 million in tactical communications systems; $32 million for two additional UAVs; $176 million for 1,000 new Border Patrol agents; as well as $68 million to hire 250 new officers at ports of entry; and $6 million to construct two forward operating bases along the Southwest border.
But what is the “mix of technology options” that the DHS is looking for under its new plan? A big part of it involves more Remote Video Surveillance System (RVSS) towers. The towers have a pair of day and night cameras, and there are already 250 of them deployed along the Southwest border. The DHS also has 38 truck mounted infrared camera systems and radars (Mobile Surveillance Systems, or MSSs) along the border, and recently purchased 30 more.
With $50 million diverted from SBInet last year the DHS also purchased 10 new backscatter radars for Border Patrol checkpoints—a technology that border agents I spoke with in Arizona, and soldiers guarding Camp Taji in Iraq, both loved—along with 104 vehicle pursuit cameras for ports of entry; 78 thermal imaging devices; and 3 aerial observation cameras.
What’s more, last week DHS released a Request for Information to industry looking for Commercial-Off-The-Shelf/Government-Off-The-Shelf surveillance towers “that would provide automated, persistent wide area surveillance for the detection, tracking, identification, and classification of illegal entries.”
While all of this gear might look like a grab bag of different capabilities with varying levels of technological sophistication, that’s the point. The border area is a physically tough environment, and what might work in the scrub desert won’t work at a fixed border crossing or along a roadway or in a dry riverbed. It took the DHS a lot of time and money to figure this out, but it might finally have hit on the right solution. Time will tell.