Magazine article National Defense

Steady State: DHS Pressing on with Troubled Technology Programs

Magazine article National Defense

Steady State: DHS Pressing on with Troubled Technology Programs

Article excerpt


One truism that has emerged in the Department of Homeland Security's first six years is that controversy always follows whatever it attempts.

Whether it is program delays, public uproars over its policies, court challenges or accusations of mismanagement, nothing ever seems to go smoothly for DHS.

Many of these controversial programs involve the development of new technologies. So far, DHS has enjoyed few success stories. Some of the high-profile acquisition programs, the transportation worker identity credential, the Secure Border Initiative's Project 28 and the Coast Guard's Deepwater modernization effort have experienced technical and management problems. Nevertheless, Congress and the Bush administration keep on funding these programs, and in some cases, have proposed increases in 2008.

One of the most high-profile programs continues to be the Secure Border Initiative. The plan involves boosting the number of Border Patrol agents, building relatively low-tech fences and strengthening enforcement of existing laws. DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff has touted lower apprehension rates as a measure of success.

The technology aspect has not gone so well. Project 28, a demonstration of a so-called virtual fence on a 28-mile stretch of mountainous desert terrain in southern Arizona, was supposed to be completed in June. Lead contractor Boeing finally handed an operational system over to the Border Patrol in December.

"We're not going to actually accept and buy a system until we know what works," Chertoff said. "Not just in the laboratory but in the frankly very tough environment of the border itself."

"We're committed to using the results of this technology to continue to move forward with our efforts at the border," he added.

CBP officials have an additional $20 million to begin a similar technology demonstration on the northern border, and will take small steps this year towards doing so in the Detroit area. The lead contractor also will be Boeing.

Along with the fencing, the Border Patrol is on target to reach President Bush's goal of doubling the number of agents to 18,000 by the end of 2008, Chertoff said.

DHS is continuing to build conventional fences. So far, DHS has added 160 miles of pedestrian fences and 115 miles of vehicle barriers, Chertoff said. He predicted the agency could add 225 miles of pedestrian fences by the end of 2008 if Congress provides the funding.

A Congressional Research Service report examining the current House and Senate 2008 appropriations bills points out that DHS has requested $1 billion for the Secure Border Initiative, but has not fully explained how the money will be apportioned between conventional fences, technology and infrastructure. It also has not produced an analysis of the cost of maintaining and operating the "virtual" SBInet fence technology. The House version of the bill would withhold $700 million from DHS until it can produce these estimates.

One border technology that has produced results is unmanned aerial vehicles. A pilot program had an immediate impact on the southern border, where drones were used to track illegal migrants and pursue drug smugglers, Customs and Border Protection officials said. The agency is expanding its fleet of Predator B aircraft, which are manufactured by General Atomics. That program has not enjoyed a perfect record, either. Its first aircraft crashed in the Arizona desert in April 2006. The accident was due to pilot error, though, and CBP has plans to purchase up to 18 additional Predators, said Douglas Koupash, the agency's acting program manager for unmanned aerial systems. The new aircraft will allow the agency to expand to the northern border and in the Caribbean off the coast of Florida, he said. CBP will also begin construction of a command and control center at its facility in Riverside, Calif., he added. …

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