I’ve written a few blog posts about the Department of Homeland Security’s Secure Border Initiative, and its SBInet program, which was initiated in 2005 by the DHS to further secure the southern border by adding a string of radar, sensors, cameras and other communications and surveillance gear mounted on towers.
Funded by a $3.6-billion allocation from Congress, Boeing has been the lead contractor on the SBI program since receiving a three-year contract in 2006 to integrate and implement the technologies, and as of February, the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) had awarded Boeing about $800 million for the SBInet technologies. After five years of setbacks, technical problems, environmental controversies and cost overruns, in March Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered a freeze on the program pending a top-to-bottom review. At the time, nine towers in Arizona’s Tucson Sector had been completed, and by late October six more were conducting limited operations in the Ajo Sector. In a possible sign of things to come, in March Napolitano diverted $50 million in federal stimulus funding intended for SBInet to other more near-term technologies, including $32 million for more mobile surveillance systems (MSS)—sensor towers mounted on trucks—forty of which are already in use on the border.
In the just-released November issue of DTI, I have a longer look at all of this, including reactions from Border Patrol agents, who are big supporters of the SBInet technologies.
Standing on a ridge overlooking the border fence in Nogales, Ariz., Paul Boulier, a 16-year Customs and Border Patrol veteran, says that when it comes to fighting the drug runners and immigrants flooding across the border, boots on the ground are the most important thing, but “as the technology has come out, it has helped us overall.” He points to the ZBV Backscatter Van, a mobile, low-energy X-ray system made by American Science and Engineering, as being “an awesome piece of technology” that has been extremely effective in helping agents scan vehicles crossing the border. The technology is also popular with Customs agents at maritime ports (and for that matter with U.S. forces protecting forwarding operating bases in Iraq).
Driving though the Tucson Sector in September, Border Patrol agent Jose Verdugo said that most agents are big fans of SBInet technologies, as “they are helping us effect the right response.” Most important is the officer safety component. “We’re able to see what’s coming at us. It offers us greater ability to interdict groups on our terms rather than their terms.”
Traditionally, agents would be alerted to movement in their sector when an unmanned ground sensor in the desert was tripped, and they would be sent out to investigate. Most of the time, Verdugo said, it would take agents at least 1-2 hr. to reach the area, by which time whatever had tripped the sensor was long gone. With the SBInet system, agents in the command center see the activation of the sensor and are able to slew a camera over in real time, providing almost instant situational awareness. “With the SBInet cameras,” Verdugo continued, “we can monitor the group until they get to a place that’s more advantageous for us to apprehend them—where we have the higher ground and the advantage to make the operation on our terms.”