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Border Technology Contracts Take New Approach

Customs and Border Protection
Agents at the Joint Intelligence and Operations Coordination Center in Tucson. The content of the video display screens have been blurred for security reasons.

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New Border Technology Contracts Take New Approach

New Border Technology Contracts Take New Approach

PHOENIX – In the coming months, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of contracts will be finalized for new surveillance technology along the Southwest border. The federal government is taking a new approach to awarding these contracts in an effort to avoid past mistakes. 

Some of that surveillance equipment is already in use at the Customs and Border Protection’s Joint Intelligence and Operations Coordination Center in Tucson. This is where some of the most advanced technology on the border is found.

Customs and Border Protection

Agents at the Joint Intelligence and Operations Coordination Center in Tucson. The content of the video display screens have been blurred for security reasons.

At the center, about 20 agents sit at desks facing large video monitors. When the CPB fly drones over remote patches of desert, this is where the video comes in. Today the monitors show what cameras on the border fence see.

Chief Watch Commander Mark Mitchell points to one monitor that looks black and white, but is actually displaying heat. He says this is an added tool for agents.

“It will help them see people hiding in the bushes a little easier.  Versus the day camera where they can get lost in the brush.”

Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, wouldn’t allow the Fronteras Desk to visit the building next door, but that is where agents receive information from over a dozen surveillance towers in the desert that use both cameras and radar. 

They are called integrated fixed towers. Their radar sweep for drug smugglers and illegal border crossers, and they transmit video.

“Our agents can then determine whether that sweep is picking up, whether it is an animal whether it is a person whether it is a vehicle,” Mitchell said.

Those fixed towers were originally put up by Boeing.

They are still functional, but the bigger project Boeing tried to create for the government – an elaborate virtual fence called SBInet that would integrate radar, cameras and sensors all along the Southwest border – was deemed a failure.

“The issue with SBInet was that it was overly ambitious,” says  Thad Bingel, a former chief of staff at CBP and now a partner at Command Consulting Group in Washington, D.C.

There were missed deadlines, system bugs and high costs. After pouring a billion dollars into it without the expected results, then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano cancelled SBInet in 2011.

And it prompted CBP to rethink how it approaches border technology.

“It really caused an examination within the agency of going back and saying, ‘OK, we tried to design a system that did a lot of things, but didn't do it all very well, so let's focus instead on what do we actually need in these different places,'” Bingel said.

What the agency decided it needs in Southern Arizona is a $1.5 billion plan over a decade that includes more cameras and more integrated fixed towers.

In July, CBP awarded General Dynamics $96 million to update and expand remote video surveillance in Arizona, with the option to expand to other states.

Read More: Potential Border Spending Means Opportunity For Security, Defense Companies

The competition for the contract to put up more integrated fixed towers is still underway. The exact dollar figure of those contracts is unknown, but it is likely to be in the neighborhood of at least several hundred million.

That will be the single biggest ground surveillance contract since SBInet. But this time, the process for awarding contracts has changed.

 “There are a lot of things different,” says Mark Borkwoski, assistant commissioner for the CBP’s Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition. The office was set up in recent years to prevent SBInet-size mistakes. 

CBP is now looking to buy proven technology that is already available, rather than paying companies to develop new systems. And the agency doesn’t want to see just paper proposals for the integrated fixed towers bid.

Half a dozen finalist companies ­­– reportedly Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics are among them – had to build a model, and prove their towers work, on their own dime.

According to the agency’s RFP or Request for Proposals, CBP wants the towers to be able to spot a single person walking in the desert during the day or night up to about seven miles away. The RFP also said that agents at a command center viewing the video feed should be able to identify, “number in group, items they are carrying or backpacking, and whether they appear to be migrant workers, smugglers, or potential terrorists, and identify weapons if possible.”

 This June the finalists showed off their towers in the desert.

Some outside analysts are applauding the agency for taking a more risk averse approach to buying new equipment.

“Having something that works in place and can do the job well, is better than something that is maybe more spectacular from a technology point of view but that ultimately doesn’t end up working,” says Werner Dahm, who directs the Security and Defense Systems Initiative at Arizona State University and was previously chief scientist at the U.S. Air Force.

CBP is expected to name a winner for the integrated fixed towers contract by the end of the year.

Jude Joffe-Block was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2010 to 2017.