Border Guard: Q & A with Greg Giddens

DHS' Gregory Giddens keeps close tabs on SBInet's progress

"In April, I'll be going to the Arizona border again to touch base with the operators and talk with the sector chiefs. When you go there, you get a fire in the belly to make this work." Gregory Giddens, SBInet

Rick Steele

One of the Homeland Security Department's most ambitious projects is the SBInet surveillance system. The project will deploy cameras, radars and sensors along thousands of miles of U.S. land borders to help federal agents quickly identify intruders.

With its high price ? ranging from $8 billion to $30 billion ? its vast scope and complex requirements, SBInet is vulnerable to significant risk and requires substantial oversight. Customs and Border Patrol's ability to address that risk is challenged by difficulties in hiring enough qualified acquisition employees and managing multiple contracts and complex technologies, according to audits by the DHS inspector general and the Government Accountability Office.

The job of keeping the project on track rests on the shoulders of Gregory Giddens, executive director of SBInet and a former Coast Guard acquisitions expert, whose job it is to ensure that the project delivers the expected results on time and within budget. He recently spoke with Washington Technology about the challenges he faces with SBInet.

WT: What is the status of SBInet and the first set of contracts with Boeing Co.?

Giddens: In September, we gave Boeing a $20 million contract for Project 28, which is the 28-mile section in Arizona that is due to be finished in June.
They also received a contract of about $45 million for systems engineering, test and evaluation work. The third contract is for the Barry Goldwater mountain range, which will be mostly tactical infrastructure, such as physical fencing and vehicle barriers. Boeing has the third task order but the fencing and physical infrastructure may go to the Army Corps of Engineers. We are expecting five task orders for Boeing this fiscal year, including work in the Tucson, Ariz., Yuma, N.M., and Texas sectors, and the common operating picture.

WT: What about the progress on Project 28?

Giddens: For Project 28, Boeing has put the cameras and radars on a tower, linked them with a satellite and integrated them electronically. We're testing that now. The radar is an MStar [Man-Portable Surveillance and Target Acquisition Radar by DRS Sustainment Systems Inc. of St. Louis] and the camera is by Kollsman Inc. [of Merrimack, N.H.].

Once we have completed testing, they are tools in our toolbox that we can use in the other sectors. We won't have to start over.

WT: So things are proceeding on schedule?

Giddens: It is a busy time. We have our noses to the grindstone. We have been given a mission and will work to make it happen. In April, I'll be going to the Arizona border again to touch base with the operators and talk with the sector chiefs. When you go there, you get a fire in the belly to make this work.

WT: A recent GAO report referenced a $7.6 billion price tag for SBInet through 2011. Can you give us a fuller picture on the overall budget?

Giddens: The $8 billion will cover 2,000 miles of Southwestern border. Clearly, we won't get through all of this by 2012. For Boeing, it will be in the billions of dollars in six years.

WT: What is the status of the common operating picture?

Giddens: Boeing has started working on the common operating picture (COP) for Project 28. It is a dispatch-focused COP. It will take the radar and camera feeds to a command-and-control environment, and will push it to agents in the field, to laptop PCs and handheld devices, for situational awareness.

It will be fused for one picture. It is a live video feed, but we are not talking nanoseconds; there is a couple of seconds delay. It will have geographic information so you can ping the coordinates. It will have blue-force tracking so you can identify the "friendlies."

The COP is not operating [in the field] yet, but I have seen prototypes in the lab.

WT: Do you have software in the cameras identifying an anomaly or setting off an alarm? Will the border patrol agents be able to control the cameras?

Giddens: No, the scene understanding will be in the common operating picture. The radar will be painting a picture, and then the fused COP will indicate that something is off. We don't want to send border patrol agents to apprehend a four-legged coyote.

The agents in the field can request that the camera position be changed, but right now they cannot control the cameras.

WT: There has been a lot of interest in whether the COP will be an open architecture with interfaces that can be supported by many vendors, or a proprietary technology. What can you tell us about that?

Giddens: The goal is for the COP to provide a high level of situational awareness, giving the border patrol an enhanced ability to respond. We are starting out with more of a closed system than, frankly, we would have liked it to be. We have to deliver in a matter of months. The vendor is Intergraph Corp. [of Huntsville, Ala].

Within the next two rounds of the development of the COP, we will be migrating to a more open architecture. It might be after the Yuma and Tucson sectors are done.

WT: There have been concerns raised in the past about the vast infrastructures needed to support SBInet, including radio spectrum, electricity and support structures. How are things going in meeting those needs?

Giddens: The spectrum management is going pretty well. We started looking at spectrum early, feeling that if you wait, you'll be late. We just closed negotiations for spectrum for Project 28, and we have been working on those issues with government agencies and with Boeing.

The state and local agencies operate on different frequencies. We need to make sure we can be interoperable with them. We will be doing some patchworking; we won't be able to convert everyone to the same spectrum. Spectrum is not a problem so far, but there is a constant risk that we may get to a place [on the border] where spectrum is an issue.

As for the towers and electricity, for Project 28, we are using mobile towers for 100 percent of the coverage, and we are bringing in the generators.

WT: Are there any unmanned aerial vehicles in Project 28 and SBInet?

Giddens: There are none in Project 28 but there will be some UAVs in the Tucson and Yuma sectors. Boeing, in its application, said it is aligned with Customs and Border Protection's UAV strategy for the borders. So they did not need to propose additional UAVs for their solution.

WT: Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has said that Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. appears to have a significant conflict of interest because it is helping oversee SBInet at the same time that it is a subcontractor to Boeing on other work. What is Booz Allen doing for SBInet and can you respond further to Mr. Waxman's allegations?

Giddens: Booz Allen has a focused role in our mission engineering group. They are gathering requirement information by sector. They are supporting us as we pull in information for a condensed requirements package.

We are trying to figure out where to place the towers and we are looking at environmental conditions, geography and terrain. Booz Allen is not setting the requirements. They are not doing oversight. No one can do oversight except the government. For potential conflicts of interest, we have non-disclosure agreements signed by all the support contractors.

WT: GAO and others have pointed out that you are relying heavily on contractor support. Would you agree with that?

Giddens: We will have as many as 270 people by September, with 53 percent contractors. We have about 80 positions filled (by government employees) and we are looking to hire about 50 people.

This issue [of hiring enough acquisition employees] is tough across the federal government. Getting the right people is more than half the battle. There is a lot of competition for these skill sets.

DHS Undersecretary for Management Paul Schneider is a good advocate. He helped us put a job advertisement in the Washington Post; I cannot remember ever doing that before. We got lots of calls and resumes from that.

WT: How is Boeing doing at meeting its small business participation targets for SBInet?

Giddens: Boeing has a good reputation in this area, and Boeing is on track for what we expect. We are continuing to manage that issue.

WT: Any final comments about SBInet being pegged as a big and risky project?

Giddens: I don't disagree that it is big and risky and ambitious. You cannot do something like this without it being big and risky and ambitious. We're in the business of trying to manage the risk.

Staff writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at alipowicz@1105govinfo.

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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