Napolitano Cancels the US $1 Billion SBInet Virtual Fence Project

SBInet II said to cost US $750 million, assembled from proven off-the-shelf technology

Illustration: Dan Page

Several years ago, I wrote in my blog for IEEE Spectrum that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Secure Border Initiative's SBInet, the "virtual fence" project that was supposed to build a sensor-, radar-, and camera-arrayed fence along the U.S.–Mexico border, was finished, kaput. It wasn't a matter of whether the project was going to be terminated, only when and at what final cost.

Well, finally, this January DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the termination of the project, long dead but still on life support. The obituary came after yet another US $230 million or so had been spent. To make matters worse, it was spent over the same time period that an internal DHS and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) review team was conducting a reassessment of the program, one that "incorporated an independent, quantitative, science-based 'Analysis of Alternatives' to determine if SBInet is the most efficient, effective and economical way to meet our nation's border security needs."

Now, with more than $1 billion spent on SBInet since 2006, here's what the review team's "Report on the Assessment of the Secure Border Initiative-Network (SBInet) Program" had to say:

[T]he department has concluded the SBInet program, as originally proposed, does not meet current standards for viability and cost-effectiveness. While it has generated some advances in technology that have improved border patrol agents' ability to detect, identify, deter and respond to threats along the border, SBInet does not and cannot provide a single technological solution to border security.

Have no fear, though. From the same report:

As a result, Secretary Napolitano has directed CBP to end SBInet as originally conceived and instead use existing, proven technology solutions tailored to the distinct terrain and population density of each border region.

But for those of you who remember, SBInet was said from the start to be a technologically low-risk project based on existing, proven technology solutions, according to both the prime contractor—Boeing—and the DHS.

But as I noted in 2007, their approach was akin to me saying that I was going to build a car using a Honda Accord engine, a Ford F-150 chassis, a GM Saturn Vue interior, et cetera, and then claiming that the resulting effort would be low risk. It might make sense to me in the middle of a sleepless night, but what about all those tenacious little issues of integration?

So what will happen next? Well, a sort of "Son of SBInet" is looming on the horizon. The report continues:

DHS is currently developing a comprehensive border technology deployment plan that will build upon successful technology currently deployed and provide the optimum mix of proven surveillance technologies by sector. Where appropriate, this technology plan will also include elements of the former SBInet program that have proven successful.

This "new way forward," the DHS says, "is expected to cost less than $750 million and will cover the rest of the Arizona/Mexico border—totaling 323 miles." SBInet I, at over $1 billion, managed to cover only 53 miles (85 kilometers).

It will take a while before Son of SBInet is deployed, because the DHS plans to hold an open competition to acquire all the technologies needed. In a recent solicitation document, the government states that it desires technology solutions that are "complete, fully integrated, and proven commercial-off-the-shelf/government-off-the-shelf (COTS/GOTS) solutions," which can be integrated without "measurable development effort" and are "open architecture" in design. The government also wants to procure the above technology using fixed price contracts.

Does anyone really want to bet that the "expected" cost and the final cost of Son of SBInet will turn out to be less than $750 million?

This article appeared in print as "The Virtual Fence's Long Good-bye." It is based on several posts that appeared earlier this year in Charette's IEEE Spectrum blog, The Risk Factor, including US Virtual Fence Likely to Become a Virtual Project.

About the Author

Robert N. Charette is president of the consulting company ITABHI Corp. and a contributing editor for IEEE Spectrum.

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