SBInet border system likely to be scaled back, replaced by UAVs

DHS recognizes the electronic surveillance system has caused "frustration"

Homeland Security Department officials likely will stop future construction of a “virtual-fence” security system along the U.S.-Mexico border and instead augment the existing system with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and mobile systems, a senior official said at a House hearing today.

“We recognize that the SBInet program has been a frustration,” Mark Borkowski, executive director of the Secure Border Initiative, told the House Homeland Security Committee’s Management, Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee.

The Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet) video and radar surveillance system has been in development since 2006, and a 28-mile prototype began operating in Arizona in early 2008. DHS plans to complete its first permanent installation of SBInet along a 53-mile section of the Arizona border this year.

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Under existing plans, SBInet would expanded to include the entire 387-mile Arizona border, and then the entire U.S.-Mexico border. But those plans are now being re-evaluated as part of an ongoing reassessment and funding freeze on future SBInet work started in March by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

The future scale of SBInet is likely to be reduced, and DHS will likely look to other technologies, including UAVs, which may be more effective at a lower cost for certain areas, said Borkowski, who oversees SBInet and other border infrastructure programs.

“My expectation is we will not do SBInet along the entire southern border,” Borkowski said.

As part of a broad reassessment of SBInet, the department is “seriously considering” increasing its fleet of Predator and Shadow UAVs and blimps, as well as  using more mobile camera surveillance systems, Borkowski added.

Another reason for anticipated modifications to SBInet is that the cross-border threat continues to evolve, Michael Fisher, chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, said at the hearing. Although physical fencing and SBInet video systems deter some illegal border crossings, new methods are being used to skirt those barriers, he said.

“It is a dynamic threat environment,” Fisher said. People are using tunnels to dig under the fences and vehicle barriers, and gliders to fly over the fences and cameras, he said.

The Government Accountability Office, while commending some recent work on the current 53-mile segment of SBInet, also delivered a critical audit report on the program, asserting that DHS has not developed a reliable master schedule or demonstrated the cost effectiveness for the system. GAO also reiterated longstanding shortcomings in the program that include lacking documentation for key milestone decisions, weaknesses in how requirements have been developed and managed and gaps in how risks have been managed and tests have been conducted.

GAO also said that while costs have increased, DHS has reduced the expected performance capabilities for the program. According to a 2008 estimate, the costs of deploying the first 53-mile permanent segment of SBInet was to be $758 million, with another $544 million to be spent on operating and maintaining that segment over its life.

Meanwhile, capabilities have been reduced. “The stringency of the performance capabilities has been relaxed to the point that, for example, system performance will be deemed acceptable if it identifies less than 50 percent of items of interest that cross the border. The result is a system that is unlikely to live up to expectations,” the GAO report said.

GAO recommended that DHS reconsider its proposed SBInet deployment and explore ways to limit its near-term investments until the long-term strategy is determined.

The GAO made 12 recommendations for SBInet that include:

  • Limiting near-term spending on the first incremental block of SBInet. Economically justifying longer-term investment in SBInet
  • Improving key program management disciplines
  • Providing a life-cycle cost estimate for incremental blocks of SBInet capabilities and
  • Forecasting benefits for incremental blocks of SBInet capabilities.

DHS officials agreed with 10 of the recommendations and partially agreed with two of them.


About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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