SBI offers integration challenge

Greg Giddens has more than video cameras, sensors and computer systems on his mind as he sets up the Homeland Security Department's giant Secure Border Initiative surveillance system.

Getting cameras and sensors in place to identify trespassers over thousands of miles of borders is only the first step, said Giddens, director of the initiative.

The new system also must link surveillance with agents' command and control systems, situational awareness capabilities and wireless communications. It must coordinate basic transportation to bring Border Patrol agents to the scene, Giddens told Washington Technology.

"The response vehicle could be a sedan, a four-wheel-drive vehicle, helicopter or, in remote areas, a horse or an [all terrain vehicle]," he said. "We're having the contractors advise on that."

With a palette of tools and transportation that ranges from advanced IT to helicopters and possibly horses, the Secure Border program arguably is the agency's most eagerly awaited systems integration contract of the year.

Teams headed by major systems integrators Lockheed Martin Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp. and Raytheon Co., as well as possible other candidates, are vying to be prime contractors. The award is expected in September.

Surveillance devices for Secure Border are much more comprehensive than other recent border surveillance programs. That makes it more lucrative for contractors, but also raises the stakes, and could put it at risk of getting stalemated by Congress' longstanding debates on immigration, industry executives said.

"It's hard to imagine this will go too far down the road without a confrontation about America's immigration and labor policies," said John Pike, director of consulting firm in Alexandria, Va.

Same mission, new plan

On the surface, Secure Border may resemble the department's previous plan for border surveillance, the canceled America's Shield Initiative. But the new program is broader in scope and, with a cost that could top the $2 billion estimate for America's Shield, potentially more expensive. Details on finances were not available.

"This is much different than America's Shield," Giddens said. The chief difference is that Secure Border's wider scope involves not only surveillance but also instituting systems to best use technology, including links with agents' command and control, communications networks and other capabilities, to gain operational control of the border, he said.

"This has to be a very disciplined systems engineering approach," Giddens said.

At the moment, the burgeoning scope and relative open-endedness of Secure Border is causing some uncertainty among contractors.

"Contractors are having an extremely difficult time with the lack of requirements," said Craig Heartwell, executive vice president of strategy for video camera maker Ipix Corp., Reston, Va. "I see it as a blank slate with an opportunity to be creative."

Ipix is in discussions with several prime contractors about providing its technology for Secure Border, Heartwell said.

DHS is "giving the contractors a lot of leeway," said Matthew Farr, defense and aerospace industry analyst for market research firm Frost and Sullivan Ltd. of San Antonio.

Some of the anxiety may ease when the agency in early April releases the request for proposals and offers more details about the contract's scope and mission.

America's Shield focused on technology acquisition rather than on operations, said Bruce Walker, homeland security director for Northrop Grumman. Secure Border, by contrast, will combine technology, infrastructure such as buildings and roads, and human capital in a comprehensive plan for operations to control the borders.

IT systems must be designed to support the agents, Walker said, because IT on its own does not accomplish much.

"All the surveillance in the world doesn't solve the border problem," he said.

Lockheed Martin will offer "a layered security solution" to achieve and maintain operational control of the borders, spokesman Keith Mordoff said, but he declined to comment on specific technologies.

Standards, not options

A chief feature of Secure Border will be sensor and surveillance technology. Contractors must choose between established and emerging technologies, or a combination of the two.

They also must decide how to incorporate into the mix new platforms such as unmanned aerial vehicles or possibly robots.

Advanced video cameras with high-resolution images, infrared viewing and night vision; heat and motion detectors; biological and chemical detectors; ground radar; and facial recognition software are just some of the technologies being discussed.

All of the devices and technologies will need to be networked together into a seamless whole.

The winning team "probably will build an enterprise architecture to integrate what they have, and to have the ability to integrate new capabilities," said James Carafano, senior fellow for national security with Washington think tank Heritage Foundation.

A possible, if unlikely, group of devices encompasses so-called nonlethal weapons, a category that includes microwave beams or acoustic devices that emit a disabling sound wave.

Several industry executives said Secure Border wouldn't incorporate such devices, because the public would find them unacceptable.

"That's not the type of country we are," Walker said.

Another possibility generally not included in Secure Border, but receiving great attention in Congress, is building a fence along hundreds of miles of the U.S.-Mexico border as a physical barrier to entry.

The House of Representatives in December passed legislation mandating construction of a 700-mile fence along stretches of the U.S.-Mexico border. The proposal has angered many Mexicans and U.S. border residents as being unrealistic, expensive and inhumane. Supporters argue that borders must be protected more effectively against illegal immigrants, terrorists and criminal gangs.

"A fence may be a solution in one area, and technology in another area," Giddens said, when asked whether a fence ought to be included in Secure Border. "It will be a mix of technology, staffing and infrastructure."

The Senate was to take up controversial immigration reforms last week, including possibly setting up a guest worker program proposed by the White House.

Funding fuss

With political disputes looming, some people wonder whether Secure Border will get adequate financial support over five to 10 years to build an effective "virtual fence" surveillance system at the borders.

The White House called for only $100 million for the project in fiscal 2007, though efforts in subsequent years are expected to need much more.

"Homeland security remains underfunded," said P.J. Crowley, senior fellow for national defense and homeland security at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington.

"Is the administration just paying lip service to border control, or will there be a steady increase to go toward deploying effective systems in a reasonable amount of time?" Crowley asked.

Another sticky issue is using the legacy systems of cameras and sensors that already lace the border. The Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System, constructed between 1998 and 2004, took $429 million to build. Federal auditors nevertheless still consider it an ineffective mess, thanks to contracting errors, incomplete installations and lack of oversight.

Still, Giddens said, "A lot of it is salvageable."

In any case, Giddens said he's excited about overseeing the huge endeavor of getting a new surveillance system up and running. The government wants a single systems integrator to pull things together, but the process may require some trial and error because new technologies will continue to evolve, he said.

"We'll learn as we deploy: Build a little, test a little," Giddens said.

Staff Writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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