Donald Trump catapulted to the top of the list of Republican presidential candidates based on his stance on illegal immigration and, in particular, his call to build a wall along the U.S. southern border and somehow make Mexico pay for it. Trump has taken an enormous amount of “flack” for his views on immigration policy and some for his proposal to build a wall.
While the idea of controlling our borders is a good one, building a 1200 mile wall is the wrong way to achieve this objective. A physical barrier along the length of the U.S.-Mexico border would be expensive, difficult to maintain and by itself ultimately ineffective. Without continuous surveillance of the fence itself, and appropriate, agile and informed response forces, even the greatest physical barrier can be circumvented. In addition, a physical fence would not be feasible along much of the northern border with Canada. Other measures and technologies will be required. In the end, they are likely to be both more effective and efficient, reducing the overall cost for securing the border.
The right approach is to build a digital wall consisting primarily of land-based sensors supported by airborne and at-sea ISR assets. This system would not only detect actual attempts to cross into the U.S. and track people, vehicles, aircraft, drones and boats, but could look across the borders and out to sea to provide early warning of hostile activities. Over time, it would provide persistent surveillance and in-depth knowledge of the physical and human environments on both sides of the border. An integrated surveillance system along the entire border would provide tactical intelligence to Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents and aerial units and strategic intelligence to a host of government agencies at the state and federal levels.
Such a system already exists. Israel has built an integrated, multispectral digital surveillance system along each of its borders, including westward into the Mediterranean. Yes, there are fences. But these are primarily to prevent inadvertent border crossings and to provide evidence of hostile intent. The fences themselves have intrusion detection sensors. The heart of this digital wall is an array of sensors – radar, cameras, motion and electronic emissions detectors – that surveils everything that moves along the border on land, sea and in the air including aircraft, drones, boats, vehicles, individuals and even animals.
I recently saw this system in operation along Israel’s border with Gaza. At a base several miles from the border, in a command center filled with work stations, young Israeli soldiers watch a defined sector of the border. Sophisticated radars provide persistent surveillance and initial detection day/night and in all kinds of weather. When something is detected, high resolution optical sensors are employed to more accurately determine the object’s identity. The soldiers watching on their screens can call on additional assets, including mobile patrols and even robots, to track or intercept the potential threat. They also can send live video directly to patrols along the border. The number of sensors and their operating ranges in each sector depend on that area’s specific physical characteristics. The Israeli Air Force and Navy provide equally sophisticated surveillance of their respective domains shared with the land forces as needed.
The Department of Homeland Security tried other ways of watching the borders, primarily using sensors in aircraft and drones, with little success. Now, after several false starts (anyone remember the Secure Border Initiative?), CBP last year began a project to build a series of electronic surveillance positions – Integrated Fixed Towers (IFTs) – along the Arizona-Mexico border. Data from the IFTs and other sensor systems will be fed into command and control centers. Together with remote sensors, airborne surveillance and mobile patrols with mast-borne radar and optical systems on their vehicles, the result could be similar to that achieved by the Israeli border surveillance system. It should be noted that Israeli radar systems are a critical component of the IFT surveillance suite.
The IFT program, if properly deployed and employing the right suite of sensors could minimize the need for massive, field barriers or walls. Groups of illegal immigrants or drug smugglers, even single individuals, aircraft, drones, ultralights and boats, could be detected well before they reached the border and tracked when they cross, allowing CBP to plan their interception.
Candidate Trump should promise that on his first day in office he will sign an executive order directing the Department of Homeland Security to begin a Manhattan-style project to build a digital wall along all our borders. Physical barriers still will be needed, particularly in highly populated areas, in order to manage the rate at which people and vehicles cross the border. But like with Israel, most of the border will need only a simple fence backed up by a full array of sensors.
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