Boeing, DHS defend work on SBInet

Two days after Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano froze some spending on the SBInet virtual fence system at the Arizona border, Boeing and DHS officials say the system is providing needed capabilities.

Senior Homeland Security Department and Boeing Co. officials today defended the Secure Border Initiative Network as a program that is providing urgently needed capabilities despite delays, technical glitches and growing costs.

Work on the program began in 2006 to create an electronic surveillance system, or virtual fence, at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The 23-mile Tucson-1 first permanent segment of the SBInet camera, radar and communications system was turned over to border agents for operational testing Feb. 6, Mark Borkowski, executive director of the Secure Border Initiative program office, told the House Homeland Security Committee today.

“The feedback we are getting is very positive,” Borkowski said. “It is very encouraging.”

Michael Fisher, acting chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, agreed with that assessment. “With respect to SBInet in Tucson-1, what we are seeing is that we are doing it right,” Fisher said at the hearing.

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The $800 million SBInet system has been controversial since its inception, owing to delays, technical problems and changes in direction in the program. The contract was awarded to Boeing in September 2006, and a 28-mile prototype system began operations on the Arizona-Mexico border in February 2008. Since then, the Tucson-1 permanent segment has completed construction and has been undergoing operational testing. The Ajo-1 segment has begun construction.

On March 16, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano froze funding on future spending for SBInet beyond the Tucson-1 and Ajo-1 segments until an assessment of program viability is completed. She also diverted $50 million in SBInet funding for the purchase of alternative border technologies.

At today’s hearing, lawmakers reiterated longstanding concerns about the program. “We were promised SBInet would be completed by 2008 at a cost of $2 billion for the entire Southwest border,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.). “We have a long way to go."

Randolph Hite, director of IT architecture and systems issues for the Government Accountability Office, reported on a pattern of technical problems and testing management shortcomings in SBInet.

Testing revealed 1,300 technical problems in the SBInet system in a 17-month period, Hite said. Although the number alone is not of great concern, since those types of issues are expected in a complex system, what is of significant concern is that the rate of new problem discovery is outpacing the rate of fixing the problems, he added. “This trend is not indicative of a maturing program,” Hite said.

Borkowski said the bulk of those glitches in the GAO report were identified last year and the current testing program is on track for completion of system testing for Tucson-1 by Sept. 15.

Also at the hearing, Hite criticized the testing protocols for SBInet, saying that up to 70 percent of the written specifications for the tests were informally modified or changed in the field and “on the fly” without formal justifications.

“Some of the procedures that were crossed out, or requirements changed, were changes made to pass the test,” Hite said. “In my opinion, the volume and nature of the changes casts doubt on the system testing.”

Borkowski, who became executive director of SBInet in November 2008, said the GAO observations applied to system tests conducted last year and the current tests will assess the viability of the system. He said he is meeting with GAO to address any current concerns.

Roger Krone, president of network and space systems for Boeing, also defended SBInet at the hearing. “Yes, definitely, it is working today, and it will get better,” Krone said. “It is giving border patrol a significant tactical advantage, especially in nighttime operations.”