A series of cameras and sensors linked to Border Patrol vehicles and a command and control center south of Tucson, Ariz., was meant to serve as a test bed for a so-called virtual fence.
The Department of Homeland Security put the Project 28 pilot program on the fast track, and asked Boeing, the winner of the contract, to deliver a 28-mile long testbed within one year.
The program was beset with five months worth of delays. DHS accepted the system from Boeing in February, and Border Patrol agents are reportedly using the technology, but it did not perform to specifications, according to a Government Accountability Office report and congressional testimony.
The perceived setbacks prompted DHS to move back the deployment of virtual fence technology in three Border Patrol sectors — Yuma, Tucson and El Paso — to 2011 according to GAO. There are no announced plans or timetables to deploy the technology in the other seven sectors in the southwest. Meanwhile, no one seems to know how much it will cost to set up and maintain these high-tech systems throughout their lifespan. Lifecycle costs for the relatively low-tech physical fences alone may reach $47 billion, according to one study.
Project 28 did not initially meet expectations in part because the integration of the technology was not tested ahead of time, said CBP Assistant Commissioner Jayson Ahern, before the House Homeland Security subcommittee on border, maritime and global counterterrorism.
Project 28 was a proof of concept project, not an end state for virtual fence technology. There were lessons learned and as such, “this objective has been achieved,” Ahern told the committee.
Roger Krone, president of network and space systems at Boeing, said the company has now set up three laboratories to test software and integrate systems before it is deployed.
Project 28’s common operating picture software did not perform as promised. New software known as “command, control, communication and intelligence version 0.5” will be rolled out this summer, according to DHS’ Secure Border Initiative Executive Director Greg Giddens.
“Project 28 was a demonstration, not a final implementation and deployment,” Giddens said in the official Customs and Border Protection Secure Border Initiative newsletter.
An independent group is currently evaluating the system, Ahern added.
Boeing credited back $2.2 million of the $20.6 million contract to pay for the delays, Ahern said. The contractor, meanwhile, has received a total of $1.1 billion in Secure Border Initiative task orders as of Feb. 15, GAO noted.
A similar congressionally mandated pilot project slated for the Detroit area to test virtual fence technology on the northern border will also be awarded to Boeing and is funded at about $20 million, SBI program manager Kirk Evans said at a border conference last year.
While citizens groups and Congress have clamored for a secure southern border, no one really knows what the price tag will be. Taxpayers will likely foot an expensive bill.
“Because border fencing is a relatively new and limited phenomenon along the U.S.-Mexico border, there is a dearth of information concerning its overall costs and benefits,” said a Congressional Research Service report, “Border Security: Barriers Along the U.S. International Border.”
Since fiscal year 2007, Congress has appropriated $2.5 billion for the Secure Border Initiative. DHS has asked for $775 million in 2009, GAO noted.
These funds are small compared to some estimates of how much it will cost to maintain the physical fencing.
An Army Corps of Engineers study predicted that the cost of constructing a double-layer fence is $1.2 million to $1.3 million per mile, excluding the price of land acquisition, the report said. A 25-year life-cycle cost could range from $16.4 million to $70 million per mile, it added.
Breaching of the fences, which would necessitate costly repairs, may put the estimate closer to the $70 million mark, the report suggested. DHS has not produced any life-cycle cost estimates of its own for either physical or virtual fences. The SBI program intends to have 370 miles of pedestrian fence and 300 miles vehicle fencing in place by the end of this year.
If that were achieved, the life- cycle cost could be as high as $47 billion.
Remote areas may instead see virtual fences such as Project 28. These may include surveillance towers, unattended ground sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles and other advanced technologies.
There have been no studies forthcoming on the life-cycle costs of these high-technology solutions.
A DHS spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
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