SBInet: Congress Wants Clearer Roadmap

Rep. Chris Carney, D-Pa., asked officials to provide, within 30 days, a best-case scenario for completion of the project.
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It seems like just the other day that a House Homeland Security panel quizzed officials about SBInet, the high-tech virtual fence that was supposed to protect more of the nation's border regions more quickly than it has and at less cost.

In fact, the last such herring before Thursday's conversation was in March, and Congressmen seem to have almost grown weary of hammering the bureaucrats and main contractor Boeing for the program's shortcomings.

But at the hearing - a joint effort of the Subcommittee on Management, Investigations, and Oversight and the Subcommittee on Border, Maritime, and Global Counter-terrorism - what the politicians really wanted was an idea of what's ahead, should the program get fired back up.

But Executive Branch officials know better than to predict the future, what with technological variables and uncertain funding, and, SBInet Executive Director Mark Borkowski and Border Patrol boss Michael Fisher were cagey about providing a best-case scenario for the project's eventual completion, overall cost, or overall effectiveness.

Borkowski did offer a worst-case scenario - which he said was certain would not happen - of $8 billion more for coverage of the Southern border by about 2016 or 2017. That would be using the technologies already used in the initial Tucson-1 sector - without using the improvements now under development.

More immediately, he said predict that the Tucson-1 region would have its engineering test results around September, and nearby Ajo-1 would have the tests done by the end of the year.

Borkowski also said other factors, such as internal enforcement and possible immigration reform, would influence the success of SBInet.

Roger Krone, president of Network and Space Systems at Boeing Defense, Space and Security, said costs along the Southern frontier would run about $2 million per mile.

Congressmen reiterated their frustration at the slow pace of the program of sensors, cameras, and operations centers, coupled with violence along the border and the increasing anger of border-area constituents. Last winter, the Government Accountability Office said that some 70 percent of test of the system were skewed. Shortly thereafter, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano suspended funding of the program.

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, called for more UAVs in the skies above the border region. He also charged that the 1,200 National Guardsmen sent to the border were tied to their desks and pushing papers. Border Partol boss Fisher explained that their work was needed and was freeing up his agents to spend more time in the field.

McCaul also asked Fisher whether President Obama had ever spoken with him about the number of Guardsmen needed; Fisher explained that such requests went up the chain of command to the Homeland Security Secretary, who makes the actual communication with the White House.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., called for the use of airships or blimps that could provide an "eye in the sky" and stay aloft for weeks at a time.

Rep. Chris Carney, D-Pa., finally made a concrete request to Fisher and Borkowski: to provide, within 30 days, a best-case scenario for completion of the project, as well as a schedule of upcoming tests and assessments.

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