There have been a flurry of news reports of late to the effect that the Department of Homeland Security is taking steps to cancel its once-troubled Secure Border Initiative Network (SBINet) program. SBINet was an experiment to see if high-tech surveillance systems could be deployed at the U.S. borders to complement physical barriers in the prevention of illegal immigration. SBINet involved a network of radars and cameras on towers coupled with unattended ground sensors. When functioning properly, SBINet can detect illegal immigrants miles before they cross the border.
For a long time SBINet was plagued by missed schedules and technology that did not work. Part of the problem was having to work with dozens of jurisdictions — federal, state, county, municipal and Native American. Another part was the attempt to introduce a raft of technologies into an organization, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, that was itself undergoing major changes and an expansion in force structure. A third challenge was that of deploying commercial technology in a very hostile environment.
Ironically, the prospective cancellation comes at just the time when SBINet is showing real progress. The program had overcome most of its technical and operational challenges. Customs and Border Protection now has a strong management team in place. According to the Border Patrol, SBINet has contributed to the seizure of tons of narcotics and the detention of thousands of illegal immigrants. SBINet is providing for the safety of Border Patrol agents by enhancing their situational awareness.
Since SBINet began, there has been tremendous progress in the area of remote sensing and tracking of individuals and vehicles. The Pentagon has sponsored a number of programs to deploy sensor equipped towers and aerostats — tethered balloons — to provide enhanced situational awareness and threat tracking for U.S. forces deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Electro-optical and radar sensors deployed on towers as high as 107 feet can provide high-quality surveillance out to distances as great as 25 km. The Pentagon wants to equip virtually every base of any significance in Afghanistan with the tower/aerostat combination. The fact that remote sensing from towers is working so well in a war zone should give one confidence that a similar capability can be made to work on the borders.
Cancelling the current program will waste the time and money already invested in the program. It will likely be two or more years before a new program can be put in place. During that time, the safety of Border Patrol personnel will be at increased risk. SBINet should be continued at least through its current phase.
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