When it comes to the technology that would create a virtual fence on the U.S. southern border, Customs and Border Protection has found itself in a chicken-or-the-egg scenario.
Whether the $1.3 billion invested in electro-optical cameras and laser range-finders on poles along the border is worth it can’t be determined until the system is fully deployed and it is working properly. On the other hand, the U.S. government shouldn’t be spending massive amounts of money deploying technology that hasn’t been proven to work. That was the gist of the testimony at a joint hearing held by two House Homeland Security subcommittees today.
In the works since 2006, and now on hold pending a review ordered by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the Secure Border Initiative’s technology piece was mismanaged, and on a downward spiral from its inception. Randolph Hite, director of information technology architecture and systems issues at the Government Accountability Office, said CBP management “has struggled to right itself during the last 18 months.”
The decision to invest in the technology should not have been made until there were reliable cost estimates to deploy the system, as well as “quantifiable and qualitative” data on the benefits it would provide. And there are currently no dependable cost estimates on the funds needed to maintain the system throughout its lifecycle, Hite added. Up until one year ago, there were only eight personnel in the entire Homeland Security Department who could do cost estimates, he testified.
Meanwhile, standards, the amount of territory the system is intended to cover, and the capabilities the equipment is supposed to provide continue to decline. The original plan called for the so-called virtual fence technology to be deployed along 655 miles of border. That is now down to 387 miles. Performance requirements for the system are now “deemed acceptable if it identifies less than 50 percent of the items of interest that cross the border,” Hite said.
Further, there has not been a reliable schedule for the deployment of the block 1. Every deadline has been missed during the last four years, and schedule delays are likely to continue, Hite said. Mark Borkowski, executive director of the SBI program executive office, said he is not convinced that the “program is viable,” and that he agreed with every point in Hite’s testimony.
There are two tests scheduled for this year in two Arizona sectors where the technology has been deployed and turned over to Border Patrol agents to use — one in September and one at the end of the year.
Representatives expressed frustration that the review Napolitano ordered had not been completed six months after its announcement. Roger Krone, president of network and space systems at Boeing Defense, Space and Security, gave some estimates on how much it would cost to deploy the technology: $100 million to $110 million for a proposed 60-mile swath of the border, and $50 million to $60 million each for two other 30-miles stretch of the border. That would be about $2 million per mile, he said. He did offer any lifecycle cost estimates, and none of the lawmakers pressed him for a number.