The 21st Century security environment is marked by an explosion in challenges to nations’ abilities to control their borders. Whether it is drug cartels operating submersibles loaded with tons of cocaine, terrorist groups seeking to employ advanced weapons against civilian targets, smugglers employing elaborate tunnel networks, illegal immigrants crossing barren deserts or special “commando” units employing advanced detection and mobility systems, the threat is becoming more complicated as well as sophisticated. Improving border security is an imperative for many countries including the United States.
One nation that has been very successful in controlling its borders is Israel. Born in one of the most dangerous and contested neighborhoods in the world, border defense has been a priority for Israel since its inception. Israel built sophisticated security systems along its borders with Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. The need for such measures became all the more central in the Second Intifada (2000-2005) when large numbers of Palestinian terrorists crossed the border with the West Bank in order to conduct homicide attacks on Israeli targets. In response to this threat Israel built a 700 km barrier that essentially cut off access to Israel from the West Bank except for a few secure border crossings. While one can disagree with the methods the military sometimes employs or the choice of paths for some barriers, as has the Israeli Supreme Court, overall the effect has been to dramatically reduce both the number of incidents and Israeli casualties.
Now, Israel has completed a new sophisticated security fence along the border with the Egyptian Sinai. The impetus for this new system was the apparent loss of control by the new Egyptian regime over the Sinai. Islamist terrorists operated in the uncontrolled space against Israeli territory. In addition, the Hamas terrorist organization in Gaza has been bringing in thousands of rockets and missiles using tunnels under the border between Gaza and Egypt.
The new border control system, called Project Hourglass, runs the entire length of the Israeli border with Egypt. Its design reflects the lessons learned from security systems built elsewhere along Israel’s borders. It consists of some 300 km of fence, multiple layers of barbed wire, and patrol paths and access roads along with cameras, radars and other sensor systems providing an integrated common operating picture to Israel’s Border Guard and Army. The sensor systems are intended to allow Israeli defenders to anticipate potential threats and respond in a timely manner. The overall cost of this system is said to be somewhat more than $300 million.
It is remarkable that Israel can build highly sophisticated border security systems hundreds of kilometers in length at the same time that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has struggled to create a parallel capability to cover a few tens of kilometers along this country’s Southwest border. Unlike Israel, the U.S. doesn’t have to worry about heavily armed guerrillas along its border with Mexico, although Mexican drug cartels have demonstrated an enormous penchant for violence. An initial system, costing more than $1 billion and based on sensors on fixed towers called SBINet, failed to meet desired performance standards. However, the current deployed test network is still being used by the U.S. Border Patrol. Now DHS is planning to try and begin to build a new sensor and surveillance network to integrate with its fleet of unmanned aerial systems, aerostats and fencing along the Southwest border. Perhaps before embarking on this new attempt, DHS should consult with the Israelis as to the best way to create a comprehensive border security system including the integrated command and control capability to acquire, fuse and disseminate real time data.