Just after midnight Oct. 2, an unmanned sensor deep in the Arizona desert near the Mexican border was tripped, sending an alert to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) station nearby. Three Border Patrol agents mounted up and headed out to investigate, blind to who or what might be out there.
A short while later, the agents came under fire as they walked up a trail, wounding one officer and killing Nicholas Ivie, 30, a four-year veteran of the Border Patrol and father of two young girls. While an investigation continues — and politicians start piling on the hot-button issue — the incident is exactly the kind of thing the CBP has been trying to prevent since 2005, when it launched a $1 billion program dubbed SBInet to network the border area with a series of camera- and radar-equipped integrated fixed towers.
The idea behind the program was that it would give agents a better operating picture of the landscape so if an unmanned sensor was tripped, the powerful cameras and radar could show who, or what, was in the area. Agents would no longer have to literally stumble around in the dark.
The problem was that the government wanted SBInet to do too much too quickly, and after a series of problems in the development and fielding of the towers, the program would be canceled by the Department of Homeland Security in January 2011. After six years of effort, lead integrator Boeing was able to emplace 23 working towers in the Arizona desert at a cost of $1 billion, and only 53 miles of the 389-mile Arizona border are covered by those sites.
As with the deadly Oct. 2 incident, border patrol agents are often alerted to movement in the desert only when an unmanned ground sensor is tripped. But the sensor only records that someone, or something, has passed over it, meaning agents have to go in blind to investigate. Adding to the frustration is the fact that it often takes agents at least an hour to reach the remote sensor, by which time the target is long gone.
While the CBP is working on a program to get a series of new camera-equipped towers to the border region, a top acquisition official told Defense News that it is taking longer than planned to issue contracts for the technology.
To take over where SBInet left off, the CBP released a request for proposals for a new generation of commercial, off-the-shelf Integrated Fixed Towers (IFT) on April 6, with contract awards expected by early September.
But Mark Borkowski, the CBP’s assistant commissioner of technology acquisition, said the decision on when the program will kick off is now uncertain. He said the number of proposals the department received “was far in excess of anything I’ve seen before” and that it was taking time to work through them all. Borkowski would not give a date for the award, only saying that it will occur by the end of the calendar year. The CBP budgeted $91.8 million in its 2013 budget request for the IFTs.
The biggest difference between the IFT program and SBInet — other than the scaled-down technological ambitions — is that this time, border patrol agents have been involved in the process from the beginning.
“What we call acquisition was at the time [of SBInet’s award in 2005] fairly new to the [Department of Homeland Security],” he said. “The Border Patrol was left out of the decision making on key elements of the program, but one of the really big things we did was to get them involved toward the end of SBInet.”
While bringing the user into the acquisition process doesn’t answer all of these criticisms, Borkowski said it is critical to the program that Border Patrol agents are involved “in helping us write the contract requirements.” In the case of the IFT program, the agents have even been given some “veto power over what kind of trades we make in terms of cost, and the design,” he said.
After this latest shooting of the two agents — the fourth fatal shooting of a Border Patrol agent in Arizona in the past two years — the political heat will likely be turned up for the CBP to get to work sooner rather than later, however.