Border Technology Vendors Face Stringent Acquisition Regime

By Stew Magnuson
SASABE, Ariz. — The alleged smugglers jumped over the 10-foot high border fence near this sparsely populated border town just after the noon hour on a bright sunny day.

A suite of cameras and sensors perched on top of a tower a few miles away picked up their movements and began tracking them immediately.

As Border Patrol agents converged on their position, a Customs and Border Protection helicopter crew about to wrap up a sortie decided it had enough fuel left in the tank to help out. It wasn’t long before it was hovering over the fence-jumpers and agents had them in custody.

They told the arresting agents that the marijuana bales found in the bushes a few feet away did not belong to them.

Key to the arrest and drug seizure was the radar that picked up the initial intrusion.

After years of preparation, CBP’s acquisition department awarded in March a contract to Elbit Systems of America to build a third generation of fixed towers designed to monitor the border. Officials said they have learned from the mistakes of the past, which led to an acquisition strategy designed to avoid the pitfalls of the second-generation cameras.

Those cameras — strung out in a chain along two sections of the Arizona border — were initially part of the Secure Border Initiative and have since been renamed Block 1. They are still in use, and one of them helped spot the alleged Sasabe smugglers, who jumped the fence in broad daylight.

There is a perception on the south side of the fence that the sensors atop the towers are more effective at night, which is not true, said Joseph A. Korchmaros, special operations supervisor of fixed technology at the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector. Agents rely on the forward looking infrared radar sensors just as much in the daytime because they are better at picking up movement.

Korchmaros has been intimately involved with camera and sensor systems in Tucson since the SBI program kicked off in 2006.

The integrated fixed tower program is only one piece of a larger technology system called the Arizona surveillance technology plan. It includes remote video surveillance systems, which use day-night cameras for cluttered urban environments where radar is not as effective, and truck-mounted mobile systems that can be moved where needed. These three basic camera and sensor platforms grew out of lessons learned from the maligned SBInet program.

The most common word CBP Acquisition Executive Mark Borkowski used to describe these technologies at a recent industry conference is “non-developmental.” The agency is asking vendors to come to it only with tried and tested products.

One problem with the SBInet, Korchmaros said, was that CBP asked one vendor, The Boeing Co., to do everything, including cameras, radars and integration.

“It was too much to ask one vendor to provide all that,” he said.

The original vision was to have all the feeds from fixed towers and unmanned aerial vehicles fused into one common operating picture. That was never achieved, he said. The Block 1 cameras are performing well, but personnel monitoring the feeds have to be told by other agents what is happening on other view screens.

“That integration piece, that software piece, where they wanted everything to get fused together by one vendor, that kind of went away and now you have individual programs,” Korchmaros said.

“The integration part is left almost all to the agents and supervisors,” he added.

There were also complaints from industry that Boeing was getting all the SBI work. There will not be any “winner takes all” in the new plan. Each piece may have a different contractor, he said.

Block 1 costs rose as what Korchmaros called “requirements creep” became a part of the spiral development program.

A series of Government Accountability Office reports on the SBInet program described CBP as an agency with an immature acquisition infrastructure, which fit into other GAO reports on Department of Homeland Security technology programs during DHS’ infancy. 

“You go to industry [and ask] ‘Can you do this? Absolutely. You pay me and I make a profit on it, and I’ll do whatever you want,’” Korchmaros said.

Then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called a halt the Block 1 program in 2011 as costs skyrocketed, and asked CBP to go back to the drawing board.

Borkowski, a former NASA and Air Force acquisition executive with more than two decades of experience, had been handed the SBInet program management duties in its final months, and was then tasked with restarting the border technology program.  

The integrated fixed tower program is perhaps the most high profile of the acquisitions to grow out of SBInet. With few new start Defense Department technology programs in the foreseeable future, it was hotly contested by most of the major U.S. defense contractors.

Coming out on top was the American subsidiary of Israeli defense firm Elbit Systems. It beat out U.S. giants such as General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon.

Raytheon has since filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office, which has temporarily halted the program.

Raytheon spokeswoman Cynthia Baker said: “We are confident in the solution we put forward and will not discuss further details of our submittal at this time.”

Borkowski said from the beginning of the program that the agency would not follow the same practices as it did with SBInet.

One company representative who heard him speak at a 2011 industry day said Borkowski made it clear that CBP would have little patience if the program goes off track. The insider summarized the message as: If the winner of the integrated fixed tower award says it can execute the contract and it can’t, not only will CBP terminate the contract, it will demand all its money back.

As CBP’s part of the deal, Borkowski has said it does not want any cutting edge or developmental technologies that are riskier to deploy. It wants proven, off-the-shelf systems.

CBP also had a deliberate approach to the program, taking three years to write the requirements, issue the request for proposals, and hold a technology demonstration.

The “system maturity and deployment capability demonstration” took place over one week in the summer of 2013. The down-selected candidates all had an opportunity to show their proposed IFT system using the off-the-shelf technology required.

CBP awarded the contract to Elbit in early March. If the protest is not sustained, the pressure will be on the company to deliver.

Gordon Kesting, Elbit’s vice president of homeland security solutions, said that is his understanding as well.

“The need for the system is high, as are the expectations to successfully deploy it. They [CBP officials] rightfully have those needs and expectations given the history,” he said in an interview.

Elbit’s American subsidiary is better known as a supplier of subsystems to the U.S. military, homeland security, commercial aviation and medical instrument markets, he said. It will be a first for it to be a prime contractor, although that is not the case for its Israeli parent company.

Elbit Systems in Israel is the lead system integrator for that nation’s border technology system. It deploys fixed camera and sensor towers, unattended ground sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles, ground robots and a communications and information technology backbone to carry all the data.

The IFT program is not nearly as elaborate. CBP is asking only for the fixed towers and the sensor suite.

Korchmaros said CBP’s intent is to have a “stove-piped” system. The reasoning is that some vendors perform better at some tasks than others, he added.

Kesting said Elbit is a lead system integrator overseas more often than not. It has such contracts with Australia and several South American companies.

Israel is a small country, but has several different environments where it must closely watch its borders. The lands it shares in the north with Lebanon and Syria are typically mountainous with some forests. The internal borders with the Gaza Strip and West Bank are marked by cluttered urban landscapes. It must also keep tabs on sea entry points on the Mediterranean. Its dry, southern region most resembles the American Southwest, he said.

“Each of those different environments requires a different set of sensing technologies, which are appropriate for the environment, the threat and the terrain,” he said.

The off-the-shelf technologies already employed in Israel only required minor changes for the IFT program, mostly to adjust for the different communications systems, he said. It’s calling it the Peregrine system.

“They were looking for mature solutions that were being used in other places in a similar manner,” he said. “The system was pretty much a non-developmental program,” he said.

The most important factors CBP wanted were operational utility, system maturity and deployment readiness, he said. Emphasis was put on usability and the machine-to-operator interfaces agents would be using, he said.

One of the raps on the SBInet program was that it did not consult Border Patrol agents on the ground as to what they required. The industry representative, who was also involved in the one-week technology demonstration, said that mistake was not repeated.

“They brought in real guys off the line — not D.C. types — to say what worked and what didn’t,” he said.

Borkowski, at the Border Security Expo in Phoenix, Arizona, held in March, said: “IFT is a set of towers with interlinked cameras and radars that is designed to survey areas where the towers and cameras will work and be effective.”

That may sound to some like the SBInet, or Block 1, program, but there is a subtle difference. This is not a one-size-fits-all program, he said. In fact, the contract is written so that the winning vendor must prove that its towers and sensors work in a specific area — in this case the outskirts of the town of Nogales, Arizona. It must be able to monitor that area’s gullies, hills and other topographical features.

Borkowski also changed the lexicon.  A “requirement” has become an “operational capability.” Rather than CBP telling vendors what it wants, the new term reflects the “you tell us what you can do” way of doing acquisitions, he said.

The funding for the program is also an indication of Borkowski’s hard line. CBP has been allocated $145 million, but the contract awarded to Elbit is only for $23 million, not the entire amount as was reported erroneously in some news stories.

“We don’t have to buy it all,” he said. The initial contract is for the vendor to build and test the system. That will take eight to 12 months, he said.

Borkowski also promised that there would be new rigor as far as the operational tests, especially when it came to “probability of detection” statistics, which he said in the past have been flawed. A new formula should be able to tell the Border Patrol more precisely how many intruders the cameras are sensing, or missing.

After the operational test phase ends, CBP cannot proceed with the program until the chief of the Border Patrol certifies that the integrated fixed towers work to his satisfaction. That is a congressional mandate rather than one of Borkowski’s innovations.

The $145 million is slated for six areas in Arizona and for seven years of operations.

Elbit, if the protest is denied, will not be able to rest comfortably as Boeing did, Borkowski suggested.

After the 2011 industry day, many left scratching their heads at this non-developmental acquisition approach. Many of the skeptics were fellow government contract specialists, Borkowski said.

So far, program costs for the IFT and other pieces of the Arizona program are coming in at 75 percent of their estimated prices, he countered.

“It seems to have worked. … Most contracts have been awarded at significant savings,” he said.
“How did that happen, and how can we leverage that in the future?” he asked.

Three years to award the contract was too long, he admitted. Part of the problem was that he had a lot of proposals to wade through. Many of them “seemed spring-loaded for protests.” That required him to document in detail his decisions, Borkowski said at the conference, which was held before Raytheon announced that it would dispute the award.

This is a “best value procurement,” he noted, which are harder than the “lowest price, technically acceptable” contracts that are now in vogue, and help protect acquisition officials from protests.

Korchmaros said while this is a non-developmental program, Border Patrol agents are looking for improvements. It will be five years between when spiral development in the Block 1 system was cut off and when the new towers come online.

Longer range, better optics and better software packages for the radar are what agents hope the new system delivers.

“The improvement in technology over the past five years is what we are getting in this new IFT project,” he said.

Topics: Homeland Security, Border Security, Deepwater, DHS Policy, Science and Technology, Science and Engineering Technology, Homeland Security

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