DHS about to choose technology for border control

Defense contractors, Ericsson offer a range of sensors and drones to monitor the border, but ultimately it comes down to freeing up agents' time.

Defense contractors are lining up outside the Dept. of Homeland Security to offer their plans to patrol the US-Mexico border, and the department is expected to announce the winners any day now, The Washington Post reports.

All year, the nation's largest military contractors have been locked in intense competition to team with the government on a program that gives the private sector unusually wide sway over a critical national security issue. Michael P. Jackson, the deputy director of the Homeland Security Department, told the competing firms earlier this year he wanted them "to come back and tell us how to do our business."

Officials say they expect the solution to be in place within four years, but companies say they can get it done sooner. The cost has been pegged at $2 billion but is likely to be higher. No one is downplaying the stakes.

Given DHS' failures in earlier border security initiatives, not to mention the bungling of Katrina, "I don't think the Department of Homeland Security can afford to fail here," said Boeing's Wayne Esse. "This thing is so politically charged. It's very visible."

Jackson's statement that contractors should tell DHS what to do gives many pause and has put DHS in the position of asserting its project management position. But given DHS's and many other agencies' failures in project management, there is cause for concern.

"It's a little bit scary when the government throws up its hands and says, 'We have no idea how to do this. Please tell us,' " said Deborah W. Meyers, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. "It just seems like the government is putting policy in the hands of the contractors."

Homeland Security officials say they decided to contract out the job because they did not have the capacity to do it in-house. But they maintain that they will ultimately call the shots. "I don't want any mistake about who is working for who," Gregory Giddens, director of the Secure Border Initiative, told Congress on Wednesday. "The [contractor] is working for the United States government."

Since the vendors are mostly defense contractors, the proposals lean heavily on battlefield approaches, the Post notes. Northrop Grumman is typical.

Grumman's Bruce Walker touted the firm's fleet of UAVs, which includes both the Global Hawk -- a plane that soars high to cover large areas -- and the KillerBee, a small, low-altitude vehicle that can be used for more-focused missions.

Both vehicles, he said, have sensors with intelligence capabilities that allow them to differentiate between false alarms and genuine threats. "It may be a herd of antelope moving across the border, and you certainly don't want to send a team after that," Walker said.

This is pure when-you-have-a-hammer-everything-looks-like-a-nail country. To cellphone maker Ericsson, this is "a big, broadband wireless problem," says Doug Smith, the company's VP for government solutions.

Ericsson's plan involves giving every Border Patrol agent a personal digital assistant that's not much different from models available on the commercial market. Tall towers lining the border would fend off dead zones and provide much of the surveillance data.

While the company's plan includes some UAVs, their role is minimal. "UAVs aren't reliable enough. They can't fly in bad weather," Smith said. "We don't need a Star Wars-type solution here. We need something that will work."

Ultimately, it's not a shortage of technology but a shortage of time and manpower.

Additional technology will give agents more data, but won't on its own help stop the flow of people coming across the border, said John E. Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org. "It doesn't matter how much money you spend on the sensors," Pike said. "If you don't spend a commensurate amount to put agents in Humvees to go out and catch suspects, it won't make a bit of difference. All you'll do is get a better sense of how they're coming in."