Want a Secure Border? Open Up the Coffers

By Stew Magnuson
Watching the recent House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing on border technology brought to mind the oft-quoted Yogi Berra axiom: “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

There sat Mark Borkowski, Customs and Border Protection’s assistant commissioner and chief acquisition executive, testifying before the subcommittee on border and maritime security and explaining why the latest program to deploy technology on the Arizona border is behind schedule.

Before him, members of Congress wanted to know why technology — and the billions of taxpayer dollars spent — hasn’t stopped illegal migration and drug smuggling in Arizona.

And to be clear, it’s Arizona, not the southern border writ large. California, New Mexico and Texas always get the crumbs when it comes to border technology. The idea is to test sensor towers in Arizona, and spread them to the other states after it’s a proven technology. There are two problems with that: after 25 years of trying, it hasn’t been proven yet, and it will cost billions of dollars to expand it if it ever does.

Borkowski has been at CBP for 10 years now. He was hired in 2006 to clean up the mess known as the Secure Border Initiative and its so-called virtual fence and to replace it with something less expensive and workable. After a decade at CBP, Arizona still doesn’t have a proven sensor system that could be expanded to other states.

The latest attempt, the Arizona Border Surveillance Technology Plan and its Integrated Fixed Towers, won’t be fully operational in Arizona until 2020 because of “significant funding shortfalls,” GAO reported in May at the hearing. That’s a telling statement.

Two series of questions from committee members pointed to a major disconnect between lawmakers and the executive branch, and a good reason as to why a virtual fence may never happen. One came from the chair, Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., who came to Congress after serving in the Air Force as a combat pilot. “As I was flying my A-10, I’m actually talking to guys on the ground that are seeing what I’m seeing on my targeting pod, so their situational awareness has increased,” she said. She wanted to know why Border Patrol agents didn’t have the same kind of common operating picture linking sensors to the boots on the ground.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., wanted to know why tethered blimps carrying sensors that are deployed on the Texas border weren’t being more widely used. The blimps are Army surplus items and free to CBP, after all.

Both answers came down to funding. Bureaucrats testifying before Congress can never say: “We simply need more money.” But that’s what it will take to make significant improvements to secure the border. And that’s all it will ever be: improvements, never a fully secure, 100-percent airtight border in which no one could ever hope to cross. That’s a fantasy.

National Defense has traveled to the southern border four times and the northern border once to investigate how technology is employed there and to witness firsthand the challenges Border Patrol agents face in remote areas. That includes visits to command-and-control centers, fixed towers, crawling into a smuggling tunnel and riding along with the Coast Guard and CBP as they patrolled border waters.

Those demanding that the border be secured should first define what that means and then be realistic about the costs and the results.

Congress in the years following 9/11 clamored for a border wall and fencing that would extend hundreds of miles. Once the GAO produced the cost-per-mile estimates for not only building it, but maintaining it, the clamoring abruptly stopped. The appropriators in Congress never signed that check. And that was when the nation seemed to have an unlimited amount of funds for security. These are different times.

A concurrent idea was to fill in the spots where there was no wall with technology. Plans were made for dozens of Predators to fly along the borders. Then came the DHS inspector general report on the cost-per hour to fly and maintain them. That halted those plans.

A series of integrated fixed towers would also feed a common operating picture to agents in their vehicles. That was known as SBInet. Congress funded it and CBP paid Boeing $1.1 billion to carry it out. That program, after years of delays, eventually produced a few working towers, but it was canceled because expanding the system would cost too much.

That brings it back to McSally’s question. Borkowski had to give her a history lesson. SBInet once had aspirations to provide real-time, live streaming video to agents in vehicles, but never could because there was no communications backbone in place in the remote Arizona desert. The Verizons of the world aren’t interested in building their 4G networks in such places, and Congress wasn’t about to pay for such an expensive undertaking. It’s the same issue a decade later: bandwidth, Borkowski said.

As for Rogers’ question, there are more free Army surplus blimps available, but it costs $3 million per year to operate each one. There are four in South Texas, costing $12 million per year to run. Chump change for the military, but a lot for CBP.

The U.S. land border with Mexico is 1,989 miles long. How many blimps, fixed towers, mobile towers and Predators will it take to cover every mile of the southern border 24/7? How much territory each can cover is classified, so let’s take that $3 million per year, say it’s 10 miles, divide the miles and multiply. Rounding up, that’s $6 billion per year just to operate and maintain southern border sensors, which is roughly half of CBP’s annual budget.

Then there is the building and the O&M costs for a physical wall being proposed — a whole different story — salaries and benefits for more than 61,000 CBP and Border Patrol personnel ($7 billion proposed for 2017), CBP’s air and marine operations and its boats and airplanes. And don’t forget the northern border — because Congress members from Michigan sure won’t. It’s easy to see the bill running far beyond the nation’s willingness to pay for it.

Borkowski will be back to testify before other committees, and it will be déjà vu all over again.

Topics: Homeland Security, Science and Technology, Science and Engineering Technology, Homeland Security

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