SBInet continues to draw fire

The Homeland Security Department’s long-anticipated SBInet electronic border surveillance system reached a key milestone in May as workers began digging holes to install permanent towers for the system on the Arizona/Mexico border. But the project is a long way from completion and continues to draw fire from critics.

“This is the installation of the no-kidding, real SBInet system,” said Mark Borkowski, executive director of the Secure Border Initiative Program Executive Office at DHS’ Customs and Border Protection. “It is a fairly major milestone.”

The initiative incorporates SBInet with barriers and physical fencing. An SBInet prototype with camera, radar and communications equipment has been operating in the desert since February 2008 and has provided valuable surveillance capabilities. But critics say it has fallen short of expectations.

During the next few months, the performance of the first permanent SBInet segment might help DHS determine whether to expand the system across hundreds of miles or scale back its installation.

“I don’t think we have achieved operational control of the border yet,” said Rick Van Schoik, director of the North American Center for Transborder Studies at Arizona State University. “We have not seen the bang for the buck.”

But even if the system works perfectly, it is not clear yet how the project fits within the Obama administration’s comprehensive framework for border security, economic growth, trade and immigration. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, who formerly was Arizona's governor, issued a directive in January to review border security and immigration. She has called for more sanctions against employers who hire illegal workers and criticized the idea that physical fencing can contain the borders.

“Show me a 12-foot fence and I’ll show you a 13-foot ladder,” Napolitano has been quoted as saying.

Policy experts say a more in-depth approach is necessary. Also, although Congress recently provided a boost of stimulus funding for SBInet, the government’s fiscal outlook has slumped since the last DHS appropriations bill was approved in September 2008.

”In this time of fiscal constraints, we need a comprehensive approach,” said David Stephenson, principal at Stephenson Strategies and a homeland security blogger. “We need an integrated solution that looks at the right mix of technologies and immigration policies as well.”

Experts say the Obama administration should also consider changes in illegal immigration patterns as it plans for future border security.

“This is a dynamic environment. When the flow [of illegal immigrants] changes, the requirements for border technology change,” said James Carafano, a senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation.

Mixed performance

Meanwhile, the nearly three-year-old SBInet continues to deliver good and bad results. The system recently completed months of lab testing to verify that it can handle desert conditions and meet its goals. But reviews were mixed: A May 8 report from DHS Inspector General Richard Skinner notes that planning for SBInet had improved, but a Government Accountability Office review concluded that the system had not met the conditions set by Congress.

In early May, CBP began constructing 17 permanent towers for the 23-mile Tucson-1 segment of SBInet in Arizona. The agency has received approval to install the cameras, sensors, common operating picture and communications systems on the towers, CBP spokeswoman Jenny Burke said.

The cost to deploy SBInet along the United States/Mexico border is about $6.7 billion, and nearly $500 million has been spent on the system so far, Borkowski said.

But other milestones lay ahead. After Tucson-1 is completed, it will be turned over to Border Patrol agents, who will judge if SBInet meets their expectations in the field. CBP officials are hoping to improve on the mixed reviews that resulted when the 28-mile prototype of SBInet began operation in June 2007. At that time, there were technical glitches, delays and misunderstandings about project goals.

SBInet originated as a next-generation camera-based system that would replace America’s Shield, which was supposed to replace the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System that had operated since the late 1990s. SBInet received a huge boost in 2006 as part of the Bush administration’s and Congress’ push for immigration reform and secure borders.

However, the government rushed to deploy SBInet and the physical fencing and vehicle barriers without a systematic analysis of what was needed and without rigorous testing of the camera and radar systems, Carafano said.

“It created impossibly unrealistic expectations for SBInet,” he added.

Slow start

Boeing Co. won the SBInet contract in September 2006 and had the prototype running on mobile towers by June 2007. But technical problems with radar and camera equipment required additional work, and DHS did not deem the prototype acceptable until February 2008. CBP’s difficulty in obtaining the necessary land titles and the need for further technology testing delayed permanent construction until last month.

CBP has learned lessons from the prototype and is ready to move forward, Borkowski said, adding that it will likely extend Boeing’s three-year contract for an additional year in September.

As the project has evolved, the approach has moved beyond technical capabilities to focus on the right mix of physical barriers, Border Patrol agents and technology. “We have become a lot more sophisticated in our knowledge of operational control,” Borkowski said.

SBInet’s goal is to detect 70 percent of the illegal traffic crossing the border when the system is operating. Improving on that percentage would require higher-resolution cameras, but those systems would be even more complex and costly, he said.

In other recent SBInet developments:

  • DHS will spend $50 million in stimulus funding on SBInet, according to a departmental planning document published May 18. Of that amount, $35 million will be added to task orders under the existing contract with Boeing to complete planned SBInet deployments in Arizona. The other $15 million will be used to buy technology under the Boeing contract or other competitively awarded contracts, the document states.
  • CBP has made progress in identifying the right mix of border surveillance technologies, fencing and vehicle barriers to meet the needs of the Border Patrol, according to Skinner’s May 8 report. From 2006 to 2008, the agency moved forward on defining and refining operational requirements for SBInet and setting performance objectives to ensure “that resources are applied consistently to meet operational needs,” Skinner wrote.
  • DHS’ latest spending plan for SBInet, fencing and border surveillance infrastructure satisfied only three of 12 legislative conditions for receiving additional funds, according to an April 30 report from GAO. Auditors reviewed conditions set by Congress for spending $400 million in supplemental funds and found that CBP did not adequately describe SBInet’s capabilities or services, give a detailed accounting of milestones achieved to date, or include life cycle cost estimates.