The End of SBInet?

Q1: There was growing evidence last week that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will scrap plans for a “virtual fence” along the U.S.-Mexico border. Why?

A1: The project, begun in 2006 and known as the Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet), would place surveillance systems along the southwest border to identify and prevent illegal crossings. DHS officials and congressional leaders have increasingly criticized the prime contractor, the Boeing Company, for what they view as “cost overruns and missed deadlines.”

In January, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano froze funding for an expansion of the project. Then, in March, DHS diverted $50 million in stimulus funds slated for SBInet to other border security tools, including thermal-imaging devices, body scanning units, and mobile radios. Finally, Secretary Napolitano recently opted not to extend Boeing’s contract for another year, instead pushing it to November 17. It seems that DHS officials have concluded that SBInet, at least in its current form, has not delivered results commensurate with its costs.

Q2: Will canceling the project solve these problems?

A2: No. Boeing has sometimes struggled with planning and implementation, but SBInet has actually begun to show some progress. The first “proof-of-concept” technology demonstration, known as Project 28 (P-28) and deployed in 2006 along a 28-mile section of the Arizona-Mexico border, initially garnered significant criticism. In December 2009, though, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials praised P-28 for having offered valuable insights into the construction of SBInet. And early reviews of the operational effectiveness of the latest Tuscon-1 deployment have been positive.

Regardless of the exact nature of this progress, SBInet’s troubles go beyond questions over Boeing. According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued last week, many of the project’s delays and cost overruns stem from DHS’s attempt to construct an integrated virtual fence technology without many of the necessary in-house program-management, procurement, and technical capabilities to plan, design, build, and implement a cutting-edge system. The Department of Defense, which is much more experienced in building complex weapons and information technology systems, allocates many years to these processes. So it was almost inevitable that two to four years would not be enough time for a relatively inexperienced DHS to complete a project of this ambition and scale. Unfortunately for DHS, though, canceling SBInet will do nothing to sort out the department’s inefficient and dysfunctional requirements-planning and program-management processes. And CBP will still need tools to help secure our border.

Q3: What does all of this mean for U.S. border security efforts?

A3: The likely decision to end SBInet signals a potential shift by DHS to “point defense” and personnel driven border security solutions. Napolitano redirected SBInet stimulus money, for instance, to discrete tools, like body scanning units, that serve a tactical purpose at individual points of entry. And President Obama’s decision in May to send 1,200 National Guard troops to the southwest border suggests an increased reliance on manpower in securing the border.

As the United States embraces these types of initiatives, it will be important that DHS not abandon wholesale, systems-integrated solutions and the institutional reforms necessary to ensure reliable deployment. A point defense approach may be appealing for its ability to quickly address targeted needs, and in some locations on the border, it may be the right answer. But ultimately, border security tools need to be unified and integrated in order to be most effective. Solutions that rely too heavily on personnel also fail to meet the country’s long-term border security needs. It is simply not cost effective to line the border with large numbers of Border Patrol agents, especially in remote areas. The involvement of the National Guard also raises important questions about the militarization of border security.

Making large-scale systems integration successful will require improvements in DHS’s acquisitions process. Canceling SBInet just as Boeing and DHS have turned a corner is only likely to set back these reforms—the institutional knowledge gained by the prime contractor will be lost, and DHS will be no closer to better managing projects of this nature.

Rick “Ozzie” Nelson is director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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