By Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 18, 2006
If Northrop Grumman Corp. gets the multibillion-dollar contract to secure America's borders, the sky above the Rio Grande would be thick with drones.
Cellphone maker Ericsson Inc. thinks drones are largely a waste and would focus instead on giving Border Patrol agents wireless devices capable of receiving live video.
Boeing Co. would build high-tech towers, lining the borders with 1,800 of them.
Those are the plans, anyway. The questions now are which company will win the rights to put its technology into play, and how well any of it will actually work in helping the United States gain control of its notoriously porous borders.
The Department of Homeland Security is expected within days to name a winner in a competition that could permanently change the way the United States conducts surveillance, apprehension and detention operations along its northern and southern boundaries. The choice promises to lend significant insight into how the government sees the future of border security, with firms offering rival visions of how that future looks.
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."
The resulting proposals are the latest incarnation of decades' worth of attempts to use technology to create a virtual fence along the border. So far, none have been successful. Recent initiatives have ended with cameras that failed to work in extreme temperatures and millions of dollars wasted.
But with immigration legislation stalled in Congress, Homeland Security officials are gambling that this new effort -- known as the Secure Border Initiative -- will be their best hope of cutting the flow of illegal immigrants into the country.
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.
"I don't think the Department of Homeland Security can afford to fail here," said Wayne Esser, who has led Boeing's efforts to capture the contract, which is called SBInet. "This thing is so politically charged. It's very visible."
The program has already garnered heavy criticism from detractors who worry that the government does not know enough about what it is buying and that the program could amount to a costly give-away to the private sector. "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."
The decision of which contractor to choose is due by the end of the month and is expected as soon as this week. While the competing proposals are similar in their basic outlines, they differ markedly in the details.
All companies, for instance, offer an array of sensors, including infrared, motion and seismic. But they are divided over where to place them -- whether to bury them, mount them on towers, or send them airborne attached to planes, helicopters or unmanned aerial vehicles.
Overall, the proposals lean heavily on technology developed for the battlefield. "We're transferring things that are military today into a civil implementation," said Bruce Walker, a Northrop Grumman vice president who has led the California company's efforts.
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.
Swedish cellphone maker Ericsson, meanwhile, is positioning itself as the nonmilitary solution. Doug Smith, the company's vice president for government solutions, said that border security comes down to "a big, broadband wireless problem" and that the most important challenge is to ensure agents have access to communications and timely information.
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."
Boeing's Esser said his team came to a similar conclusion. "UAVs are incredibly expensive to operate," said Esser, citing the size of the vehicles' ground-based crews. "Everybody's real hot on UAVs. But you just can't afford it. It doesn't make sense."
Instead, the Chicago aerospace company has proposed a network of towers -- ranging in height from 80 to 200 feet -- that would line the northern and southern borders. UAVs would have a more limited role, with agents deploying miniature versions of the vehicles off the back of their trucks.
The final two companies -- Lockheed Martin and Raytheon -- say they provide a balance of air- and ground-based equipment.
At Bethesda-based Lockheed, the country's largest defense contractor, the company's solution includes a UAV that can be launched by an individual agent, much like a paper airplane, as well as larger Predator drones and tethered balloons known as aerostats. On the ground, the company offers a selection of towers -- some fixed, some mobile.
Jay Dragone, the company's vice president of integrated border security solutions, said Lockheed would keep its plan flexible and adjust depending on what helps agents the most. "This is not going to work if it takes the agent a long time to figure out what they're looking at and how to use the systems," he said.
Massachusetts-based Raytheon has developed its solution based on a company-managed program to keep drug-runners and poachers out of the Amazon. Under Raytheon's plan, Border Patrol agents would be able to watch sensor activity and video feeds from their trucks on a display based on the satellite-powered mapping system Google Earth, giving them perspectives on border issues near and far. The company would also provide bar-coded bracelets that could be used to track suspects as they move through the detention system.
Like the other firms, Raytheon has proposed that contractors take over jobs now performed by Border Patrol agents -- such as transporting prisoners and mending fences -- to give agents more time to focus on their main priority. "We would leave the work of the Border Patrol to the Border Patrol," said Frank Marcinkus, Raytheon's SBInet capture manager.
Outside observers say freeing up agents' time could prove critical to the program's overall success. 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."