High-tech for border security

The government has bought high-tech promises before with dismal results. This time, contractors are invited to design strategy as well as sytems.

The short term plan for border security involves the National Guard. But for the long term, the Bush Administration expects to turn to some old friends with some expensive toys. The New York Times reports it will be the big defense contractors deploying technology similar to that used in Afghanistan and Iraq who will be building the "virtual" border fence of the future.

Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, three of the largest, are among the companies that said they would submit bids within two weeks for a multibillion-dollar federal contract to build what the administration calls a "virtual fence" along the nation's land borders.

Using some of the same high-priced, high-tech tools these companies have already put to work in Iraq and Afghanistan — like unmanned aerial vehicles, ground surveillance satellites and motion-detection video equipment — the military contractors are zeroing in on the rivers, deserts, mountains and settled areas that separate Mexico and Canada from the United States.

The difference is that contractors won't only be supplying the technology; they'll be developing the strategy for how use technology and soldiers to secure the borders - something no administration has ever managed to do.

[The government is] asking the contractors to devise and build a whole new border strategy that ties together the personnel, technology and physical barriers. "This is an unusual invitation," the deputy secretary of homeland security, Michael Jackson, told contractors this year at an industry briefing, just before the bidding period for this new contract started. "We're asking you to come back and tell us how to do our business."

So what technology will be deployed? One example:

The Tethered Aerostat Radar, a helium-filled airship made for the Air Force by Lockheed Martin that is twice the size of the Goodyear Blimp. Attached to the ground by a cable, the airship can hover overhead and automatically monitor any movement night or day.

But Congress is skeptical - with good reason.

The government's track record in the last decade in trying to buy cutting-edge technology to monitor the border — devices like video cameras, sensors and other tools that came at a cost of at least $425 million — is dismal.

Because of poor contract oversight, nearly half of video cameras ordered in the late 1990's did not work or were not installed. The ground sensors installed along the border frequently sounded alarms. But in 92 percent of the cases, they were sending out agents to respond to what turned out to be a passing wild animal, a train or other nuisances, according to a report late last year by the homeland security inspector general.

A more recent test with an unmanned aerial vehicle bought by the department got off to a similarly troubling start. The $6.8 million device, which has been used in the last year to patrol a 300-mile stretch of the Arizona border at night, crashed last month.

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