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U.S. Takes Another Shot at Networking the Border

Aug. 28, 2012 - 10:45AM   |  
By Paul McLeary   |   Comments
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After well-publicized fits and starts — and almost $1 billion sunk into a canceled program — U.S. Customs and Border Protection is about to kick off another program in an attempt to blanket the U.S. southern border with a family of networked surveillance towers.

Barely a year old, the plan has its share of skeptics, including some members of Congress and government watchdogs. But CBP is determined to go forward with what it calls the Arizona Border Surveillance Technology plan. The idea is to deploy a series of networked, integrated fixed towers, or IFTs, equipped with radar and cameras that will “be able to detect a single, walking, average-sized adult” at a range of 5 and 7.5 miles during day or night, while sending close-to-real-time video footage back to agents manning a command post.

Customs released a request for proposals for the towers April 6, giving industry until May 30 to submit mature, non-developmental solutions for consideration. The agency said a down-select would come about 90 days after industry’s submission date, meaning a decision should come any day now. The CBP budgeted $91.8 million in its fiscal 2013 budget request for the IFTs.

While the competition seems relatively simple, it comes burdened with a significant amount of politically dangerous baggage.

The precursor to this latest program is the infamous SBInet, which was canceled by the Obama administration in January 2011 after the program endured six years’ worth of schedule slippages, technology problems and a $1 billion price tag for solutions that didn’t come close to meeting expectations. The program’s goals were the same as the IFT: to install a series of fixed surveillance towers along the southern border to give border patrol agents real-time intelligence on who, or what, was moving about along the Mexican border.

The program suffered from a litany of issues, including poorly written requirements, a lack of oversight and issues with the placement of towers in environmentally sensitive areas.

Boeing was the lead integrator on the project, which in the end did produce 23 working tower sites in the Ajo and Tucson-1 sectors in the Arizona desert, all of which were certified and accredited by the CBP with authority to operate on March 11, 2011. But after six years of effort, only 53 miles of the 389-mile Arizona border are covered by those sites.

Still, those sites do work. Bryan Palma, Boeing’s vice president of the secure infrastructure group, said the company continues to maintain those sites, and is actively pursuing the IFT contract to build off the success it has had at the sites that made it to completion.

“The feedback we’re getting from the boots on the ground is that the [current] system is working,” Palma said. “It’s valuable, and it’s something that they rely on to do their jobs every day.”

Lockheed Martin has also submitted a bid for the IFT contract, and has deployed a technology demonstrator to an undisclosed location in Texas, where it has helped a local sheriff “detect small and large groups of walkers” coming over the border, said Richard Tedesco, the company’s secure borders capture manager.

General Dynamics and EADS have also teamed on the project, utilizing towers that General Dynamics has developed for the Coast Guard’s Rescue 21 program, which relies on 247 fixed radio towers along with command-and-control equipment at nearly 200 Coast Guard facilities, covering more than 41,800 miles of U.S. coastline.

Carlaine Blizzard, vice president of Homeland Security for EADS-North America, said the towers, along with EADS’s experience in deploying 8,000 miles of border systems, have produced a formidable system.

“What we did was take that mature border system and married it with GD’s ability to communicate and deploy their towers, and then you can employ any technologies you want,” Blizzard said.

These issues have caused the Homeland Security Department to come in for some withering criticism from Congress. In a report issued Aug. 1, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, of the House’s Committee on Homeland Security, wrote that the DHS “does not use the necessary tools to ensure rigorous oversight of its acquisition programs, including those managed by its component agencies. Specifically, the manner in which DHS manages its acquisition investments has been flawed.”

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