Contractors stand at the ready

Border security will <@SM>require integration skills

Following months of uncertainty, government IT contractors are feeling optimistic about Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's plans, announced Nov. 2, to launch the multibillion-dollar Secure Border Initiative next spring.

The comprehensive border-control plan includes creating an integrated system of video cameras, unmanned aerial vehicles and environmental sensors spanning thousands of miles along the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico.

Industry experts anticipate a price tag in the $2 billion range for the technology integration, with a request for proposals expected between January and March, and deployment in 2007.

"I'm encouraged," said Alfredo Perez Jr., vice president of sales for Reston, Va.-based Ipix Corp., a supplier of imaging and video surveillance solutions. "This has a lot of velocity behind it."

Many questions remain unanswered, however, about the scope and structure of the secure border procurement, which DHS officials said will encompass the former border IT surveillance system known as America's Shield Initiative. Contractors attended a DHS industry event for America's Shield in August 2004, but there has been little activity since then.

QUESTIONS ABOUND

At a time when DHS is restructuring many of its IT procurement vehicles, including introduction of the Enterprise Acquisition Gateway for Leading Edge solutions (Eagle) contract for IT services, which could be as large as $7 billion a year, there is much speculation about how the department will handle the multibillion-dollar secure border project.

One big question is whether the department will package the procurement as a traditional large contract, turning over the bulk of the management and integration to one large systems integrator, or possibly to two or three integrators.

Alternatively, DHS may decide to construct the border surveillance system in a piecemeal fashion, awarding small, manageable chunks of the project to contractors on a regional basis, industry sources said. A piecemeal approach has advantages, but overall, it may result in less effective integration.

Consultant Tim McMillan, vice president of Government Sales Force LLC, McLean, Va., said DHS should learn from the Air Force's experience with its Integrated Base Defense Security System, a program to integrate security systems at each military base. With multiple contractors involved in the Air Force project, it has been more complex to integrate the whole thing, McMillan said.

"If I'm at the Pentagon, I don't want multiple systems," McMillan said.

Hiring one large systems integrator to oversee creation of the border surveillance system would ensure an enterprise approach and a common operational picture, he said.

DHS' decisions about the procurement vehicle's structure may depend on how much funding is available from Congress, said Dirk van der Vaart, vice president of security and intelligence programs at IT services company American Systems Corp., Chantilly, Va.

If only small budgets are available each year, DHS may go for an approach similar to that taken in the Air Force project, even though it would require a lot of oversight by DHS officials, he said.

A preferred approach would be to have a program executive office with a large contractor, or two or three, to run the program, van der Vaart said.

"From an ease-of-integration standpoint, it probably makes the most sense to go down the program executive office road with one or a fairly small number of large contracts. Then it becomes easier to integrate and hammer out the interoperability standards," van der Vaart said.

Standards for integrating the sensors, video cameras and other devices, combining the inputs when appropriate and communicating the information to users in a meaningful fashion will be a critical part of the project. Use of open standards, rather than proprietary IT, is the better choice, McMillan said.

"If a stakeholder in Washington needs to see the information, you wouldn't want for them to need a software license," he said.

MONEY MATTERS

The fiscal 2006 budget earmarks $51 million for America's Shield, but departmental communications about it have been few and far between. Major system integrators, including Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp., have expressed interest in being prime contractors for America's Shield.

Thousands of cameras and sensors, including more than 200 video cameras operating along the U.S. borders, already are installed along the borders through the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System, known as ISIS, begun in the late 1990s.

In June, a House subcommittee heard testimony about a General Services Administration inspector general's report alleging a lack of oversight for ISIS as it grew to a $200 million program hampered by incorrect equipment and improper installations. A senior executive of L-3 Communications Inc. of New York, which in 2002 bought the original ISIS contractor, said the audit results were incorrect.

Chertoff, who took charge in March, put all major programs on hold for a wide-ranging Second Stage Review, which he completed in July. In announcing the results of the review, however, Chertoff did not mention America's Shield.

Nor did he mention America's Shield in his Nov. 2 statement. However, DHS now confirms that America's Shield will be integrated into the Secure Border Initiative, although details about the budget, procurement and timetable are not available, said Joanna Gonzalez, a DHS spokeswoman.

Many Republicans in Congress, including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), are strong supporters of border control.

Hunter recently introduced legislation to build a fence spanning the entire U.S.-Mexico border and augmented by sensors and lighting.

But many business representatives and immigration advocates said border commerce and international relations could be affected severely if the border control system is changed too drastically, or if a strong new border surveillance system is viewed as inhumane.

"There needs to be a discussion about how far we push homeland security vs. the fact that our economy is based on an open border," said ASC's van der Vaart. "As we talk about sophisticated technology capable of locking down the border, what are the social and political ramifications of that?"

Staff Writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at alipowicz@postnewsweektech.com.

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