Lucrative opportunities survive SBInet's demise

The SBInet system might be gone, but the need for border security continues. What lessons did DHS and industry learn from the attempt to build a virtual fence along the border of the United States and Mexico?

As the Homeland Security Department launches a new southwestern border security technology strategy, DHS wants to make a few things clear: The program won’t be an SBInet system redux, but there probably will be some technologies that are similar to those developed during SBInet.

Unlike the $1 billion SBInet electronic surveillance system development program that was recently canceled after five years, the new strategy aims to use only proven technologies from the start, said Mark Borkowski, assistant commissioner of the Customs and Border Protection agency's Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition.

“SBInet was a development program,” Borkowski said. The new strategy is different. “We are not developing anything. If you have got it, we will consider buying it, if it is worth the cost for the performance."

At the same time, although SBInet overall was a disappointment because of cost overruns and schedule delays, the capability delivered for the 53-mile SBInet Block 1 segment in Arizona is working effectively and might be replicated to some degree in the new strategy, Borkowski said.

“The deployment of Block 1 gave us confidence,” he said. “What we built works, it is effective, and the Border Patrol likes it.”

The SBInet Block 1 system is showing good performance with 90 percent availability, he added.

Lessons from disappointment

CBP’s acquisition team has traveled a long road to get to this point. And it's still a rocky path forward as the Border Patrol grapples with an urgent need to control illegal entries along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico. The lessons learned from SBInet might help define what lies ahead.

SBInet started in 2006 with a contract awarded to Boeing Co. to build an integrated tower system with cameras, radars and a common operating picture. The initial system, named Project 28, suffered delays, technical glitches, mismanagement and shifting requirements before beginning operation in February 2008. The SBInet Block 1 followed and was completed in 2010, but members of Congress and federal auditors continued to criticize its high costs, totaling $1 billion to date.

In January, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano canceled the remainder of SBInet and declared that each of the nine geographic border sections would be analyzed to determine the best mix of technologies.

“I think it’s disappointing that we spent so much to get to this point,” said Borkowski, who became executive director of SBInet in November 2008. “We now have a tool that is available to us. It is a high-end capability. We got something, but I’m not going to say I’m not disappointed.”

“SBInet’s aspirations exceeded our needs,” Borkowski said. "We spent more than we should have."

According to the new plan, SBInet Block 1 will continue to operate. But DHS has shelved previous plans to extend it across the entire border.

The department expects to spend $750 million to acquire border technologies for the 370-mile Arizona border first, with $185 million available this fiscal year and $242 million requested for fiscal 2012. Those funds would pay for integrated fixed towers, remote video cameras, handheld devices, mobile systems and other technologies.

Border Patrol agents in Arizona have compiled a list of 48 combinations of technologies for use along the border, and several requests for proposals will go out later this year.

“We will have multiple RFPs,” Borkowski said. "We will be buying a bunch of systems."

Big bidders in the wings

An RFP for integrated fixed towers that combine integrated sensors and a common operating picture is likely to be released early next year, Borkowski said. Boeing is eligible to apply for the new integrated fixed tower systems, he added. Contractors that bid on the first round of SBInet — including Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp. — also are expressing interest.

“It makes sense that Arizona would be the place to start,” said Lee Hall, director of homeland security solutions at Lockheed Martin. “It also makes sense to use an incremental approach based on proven technologies — and to employ only those technologies that are relevant to a unique geographic sector’s needs. A one-size-fits-all strategy just won’t work."

Hall said Lockheed Martin appreciates the flexibility in the new strategy and has proven capabilities to offer CBP.

Northrop Grumman also plans to offer fixed location and mobile systems to CBP in the next phase of border security, said Cyril Draffin, vice president of homeland security at Northrop Grumman.

“We think that mission-critical solutions that are secure, scalable, cost-effective and reliable are characteristics that are important for border security,” Draffin said.

Boeing also might bid on the next round. “We are proud of the accomplishments of our team and of the unprecedented capabilities delivered in the last year that provide Border Patrol agents increased safety, situational awareness and operational efficiency,” that company said in a statement. “Boeing remains committed to providing valuable solutions and supporting DHS.”

What's in the toolbox

As Borkowski sees it, CBP will select various border technologies from a toolbox, and an integrated tower system with cameras, radars and common operating picture — but with less capacity than SBInet’s design — might fill a need. The design of SBInet Block 1 called for additional capabilities, such as being able to integrate feeds from blue force units and mobile units, which made that design more expensive, he said.

“We have critical needs to do something now,” Borkowski said. “We’d like the opportunity to pick and choose from the toolbox. A less ambitious SBInet could be useful.”

Having a baseline system in place and operating is helpful, Borkowski said. “Before SBInet, we had no integrated technology for border security, no baseline, no foundational technology. We learned a lot from SBInet.”

In the next phase, CBP will consider the lowest-cost systems first and will consider cost vs. effectiveness for every system. Borkowski described it as “a complete turning-upside-down of the earlier paradigm.”

Market analysts and industry executives see benefits in the new approach. “CBP needs to have clear requirements,” Draffin said. “They can do that upfront this time, so that is an advantage.”

However, some risks remain. Because of the scope of the challenge and need to possibly integrate many disparate areas, it is likely that mainly the larger systems integrators would be bidding, said John Slye, principal analyst at Input, a market research firm in Reston, Va.

“But it was this same issue — shear scope and complexity — that presented such a challenge to the existing program," Slye said. "The only way to avoid this is to build things modularly, testing individual components as you go.”

Even with such precautions, there is a risk of technological obsolescence as you get to later phases, which is a known issue with every large-scale program, Slye added.

“Ultimately, DHS needs to avoid the expectation that they can set out on a massive-scope program within a rapidly changing environment applying developing technologies and expect no delays and seamless operations,” Slye said. "Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the saying goes."

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