Probably No Big, Fat Contracts for Next-Generation of Border Technology

By Stew Magnuson
Customs and Border Protection is gearing up to begin its third attempt to deploy technology on the Southwest border.

Major contractors such as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and BAE Systems are among those who have said they are interested in competing for contracts.

But signs coming from the agency indicate that there may not be one large multi-year award similar to what the incumbent Boeing won in 2005.

“There is no anticipation of an SBInet II,” said Lee Hall, director of homeland security solutions at Lockheed Martin. That was his assessment after attending a CBP industry day in April that outlined plans for the next-generation of border technology.

The Secure Border Initiative’s technology piece, SBInet, kicked off in 2005. Boeing initially won a $20 million contract to set up a 17-mile demonstration project in southern Arizona. That pilot project never lived up to expectations, but the company went on to receive multiple awards worth more than $1 billion over the next five years to place more sensors along the border. It continues to receive funding to maintain some of the systems

“We don’t expect to see another big [request for proposals],” Hall told National Defense. “It’s going to be multiple procurements over an extended period.”

One reason is that there are currently no plans to create a network of sensors, cameras, communication backbone and a common operating picture that would require one contractor to integrate it all. No giant “system of systems” means there is no need for a so-called “lead system integrator” to tie them all together.

That was the original vision of SBInet. Border Patrol agents in their vehicles would receive direct feeds from stationary cameras on a dashboard view screen that would help them track down illegal migrants or drug smugglers.

Along with cameras and sensors that didn’t work well, and delays in creating the common operating picture, CBP officials discovered late in the game that it would be difficult and costly to build a communication architecture that would support live streaming videos. And commercial providers were not interested in supplying such a network in remote, sparsely populated areas. The Government Accountability Office also found that Border Patrol agents were not consulted on whether it was something they needed.

“We are moving away from SBInet because its ambition exceeded our needs,” Mark Borkowski, assistant commissioner at CBP’s office of technology innovation and acquisition, said in a PowerPoint briefing presented at the industry day. “The original concept for SBInet of a single, wholly integrated ‘virtual fence’ may not be appropriate.”

There would not be a monolithic deployment of SBInet technology across the entire border, he added. Each region will require different solutions.

The document went on to repeat what Borkowski has said in public: namely that the agency is not interested in paying for the development of new products. It wants mature, off-the-shelf technologies — mostly sensors and cameras in the near term.

Lockheed Martin is not dissuaded by the lack of prospects for a big contract. It has many off-the-shelf technologies from its numerous divisions — many of them tried and tested in Iraq and Afghanistan — that could be applied to the border, Hall said.

Biometrics that could be collected in the field, and a common operating picture transmitted into vehicles are two he mentioned. CBP hasn’t abandoned plans for a network that could tie these technologies together. But they are long-term goals, Hall said.

“We are trying to take a near-term and long-term view,” Hall said. “We are thinking about both what we can apply in the near term, and how we can evolve as the customer continues to grow.”
President Obama, during a major policy speech on immigration reform near the border in El Paso, Texas in May, said that the southern border is safer than ever before, but mentioned almost nothing about the role of technology.

“I’ve deployed unmanned aerial vehicles to patrol the skies from Texas to California,” was the only reference to SBInet in the speech.

Topics: Homeland Security, Border Security

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.