New Technologies Aid Border Patrol

 

The border that separates the U.S. and Mexico is teeming with security fences, surveillance towers bristling with cameras and sensors, mobile surveillance trucks, unmanned ground sensors, Border Patrol agents on foot, horseback, in trucks and helicopters, and National Guard troops. Above it all flies a growing fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) operated by agents on the ground. Major roadways in the border states also have checkpoints manned by armed Border Patrol agents looking for contraband or illegal immigrants. And yet, drug smugglers and illegal immigrants continue to flood the border.

The most active patrol area in the country is the Tucson Sector of Arizona, covering 262 mi. of border. The sector accounted for 1 million lb. of marijuana seized in Fiscal 2010, and 203,000 illegals detained. Tucson also has the distinction of being the test bed for the Homeland Security Department’s (HSD) huge and controversial SBInet program, part of its larger Secure Border Initiative. SBI was initiated in 2005 by HSD to further secure the southern and northern borders by adding fencing, paved and graded roads and installing SBInet technologies such as radar, sensors, cameras and other communications and surveillance gear.

Funded by a $3.6-billion allocation from Congress, Boeing has been the lead contractor in the program since receiving a three-year, indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contract in 2006 to integrate and implement the technologies. As of February, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) had awarded 13 task orders to Boeing for $1.2 billion, $800 million of which has gone to SBInet.

After five years of setbacks, technical problems, environmental controversies and cost overruns, that $800-million investment has only managed to cover 53 mi. of the Arizona border, and in March Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered a freeze on the program pending a top-to-bottom review. At the time, nine towers in the Tucson Sector had been completed, and by late October six more were conducting limited operations in the Ajo Sector.

Mark Borkowski, executive director of the SBI program, tells DTI that when Napolitano took action in March, “we were still well behind our schedule. Tucson should have been completed and we should have had test data from it, so we were continuing to have delays and cost growth.” Borkowski hopes to have system acceptance tests on the Ajo towers complete by the end of the year.

One of the problems with the program, Borkowski concedes, is something that has plagued the Pentagon in recent years: reaching for a complicated technology-driven solution before running a true assessment of its costs. For one thing, there wasn’t any cost analysis conducted before HSD jumped into the SBInet program. “There was a certain urgency,” he says, “and a belief that this wouldn’t be all that hard to do. That belief turned out to be wrong.”

The review—which was to be completed by the end of October—could mean the end of the SBInet program. “There’s a whole range of options,” Borkowski says, anything from a go-ahead to continue work and expand the program, to scrapping it “and go with mobile options, or look into other options.”

Alternatives include the much less expensive mobile surveillance systems (MSS), mobile sensor towers mounted on trucks, 40 of which are already in use on the border with more on the way—albeit at the expense of the SBInet system. In March, Napolitano diverted $50 million in federal stimulus funding intended for SBInet to other more near-term technologies. About $32 million of that went to fund more MSS trucks.

That’s the view from Washington. But how is all of this playing out on the ground in Arizona?

Standing on a ridge overlooking the border fence in Nogales, Ariz., Paul Boulier, a 16-year Customs and Border Patrol veteran, says that when it comes to fighting the drug runners and immigrants flooding across the border, boots on the ground are the most important thing, but “as the technology has come out, it has helped us overall.” He points to the ZBV Backscatter Van, a mobile, low-energy X-ray system made by American Science and Engineering, as being “an awesome piece of technology” that has been extremely effective in helping agents scan vehicles crossing the border. The technology is also popular with Customs agents at maritime ports (and for that matter with U.S. forces protecting forwarding operating bases in Iraq).

Driving though the Tucson Sector in September, Border Patrol agent Jose Verdugo said that most agents are big fans of SBInet technologies, as “they are helping us effect the right response.” Most important is the officer safety component. “We’re able to see what’s coming at us. It offers us greater ability to interdict groups on our terms rather than their terms.”

Traditionally, agents would be alerted to movement in their sector when an unmanned ground sensor in the desert was tripped, and they would be sent out to investigate. Most of the time, Verdugo said, it would take agents at least 1-2 hr. to reach the area, by which time whatever had tripped the sensor was long gone. With the SBInet system, agents in the command center see the activation of the sensor and are able to slew a camera over in real time, providing almost instant situational awareness. “With the SBInet cameras,” Verdugo continued, “we can monitor the group until they get to a place that’s more advantageous for us to apprehend them—where we have the higher ground and the advantage to make the operation on our terms.”

While the ground portion of the nation’s border protection strategy is in flux, the Border Patrol’s UAV program, which centers around a rapidly growing fleet of General Atomics MQ-1 aircraft, has met with great success in the first five years of its life—so much so that the Border Patrol has three more on order, which will bring the total to 10 by the end of 2011. And not only is the fleet growing, but with the recent addition of a launch and recovery site in Corpus Christi, Texas, CBP’s UAV capabilities will now cover the entire Southwest border, from the El Centro Sector in California to the Gulf of Mexico.

In addition to launch and recovery sites in Arizona; Grand Forks, N.D.; Cape Canaveral AFB, Fla.; and Corpus Christi, CBP Assistant Commissioner Michael Kostelnik, a retired Air Force major general, says the department also has a development base at Ft. Drum, N.Y., so the Border Patrol “can go there at very short notice . . . it gives us the ability to respond to high-end threats to the Northeast” as fast as a Predator can fly there from one of the other bases. The five land-based MQ-9 Predator Bs are identical to what the U.S. military flies, with electro-optical sensors and cameras, forward-looking infrared, synthetic aperture radar and laser range designators, Kostelnik says. The domestic Predators are, however, unarmed and carry Wolfsburg radios for law enforcement connectivity.

Unlike the military, Border Patrol agents in the field aren’t able to receive real-time information from the UAVs just yet, but can talk to agents in a control center who are watching the feeds in real time. “We don’t stream the data to agents on the ground right now, but we clearly have the capability to do that,” Kostelnik says. He adds that the Predators come in handy at night since they can laser targets, enabling agents to identify problem areas on the ground.

One of the prime missions the Predators are performing that save agents critical time and free them for other missions, is evaluations of unattended ground sensors when they are set off, to determine whether they were tripped by animals, high winds, illegal aliens or drug smugglers. Significantly, Kostelnik says that all the UAVs are flown and operated by Border Patrol agents—as opposed to contractors—and that the only limitation on their constant use is the lack of agents qualified to fly them.

The issue of border security is complex and emotional. But what the Border Patrol agents interviewed by DTI agree on is that neither technology alone nor more boots on the ground can solve the problem. It is as much a political issue as an operational one.

By Paul McLeary/AviationWeek
Nogales, Ariz.

Photo: DHS

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