The new wall President Donald Trump promised on the campaign trail – and that Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly says can be built in just two years – will actually be enhanced by a high-tech barrier bristling with sensors and designed to turn the narrow border into a wide perimeter that cannot be penetrated without detection.
Widening the border is critical to a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) strategy that recognizes criminals will never stop probing border defenses, no matter how tall or formidable physical barriers become. With more than 1,900 miles to defend on the southern border alone, much of it in remote and rugged terrain, bricks and mortar aren’t enough.
Indeed, the future of border security looks to include high tech capabilities – among them boxes full of sensors mounted atop 80-foot-tall poles – that will complement and enhance the concrete and steel barriers that wind along the desert and urban border. Fencing and barriers are valuable deterrents, experts say, but people and technology are no less essential.
The Remote Video Surveillance System (RVSS) is a prime example. Combining day and night video cameras, laser range-finders, spotlights and loudspeakers, the system gathers intelligence data and beams it back to command and control centers. There, sophisticated image-processing and recognition software employing artificial intelligence can spot items of interest faster than the human eye. When threats are detected, border patrol agents can be quickly directed to the location.
RVSS has already proven effective, including successful deployments in five regions along the Arizona-Mexico border over the past couple of years. Developed by General Dynamics Information Technology, RVSS achieved Full Operating Capability in December 2016 when CBP reported that, based on test results and agent feedback, RVSS adds surveillance capability, increasing both situational awareness and officer safety.
Now CBP is looking to expand the program. In a request for information updated in January, CBP floats the concept of deploying RVSS, as well as a re-locatable RVSS platform, along the entire southern and northern borders. This would add at least another 150 RVSS stations in 10 U.S. Border Patrol sectors, among them Laredo, Del Rio, Big Bend (Marfa), El Paso and El Centro in Texas; San Diego in California; Blaine, Wash.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Swanton, Vt. and Detroit, Mich.
These represent a range of urban, suburban and rural terrain, each requiring different solutions. RVSS is flexible and modular enough to easily accommodate those changes, allowing system designers to deploy the best possible sensor suite for any circumstances. For example, an installation in a close-in urban environment doesn’t need the kind of long-range cameras needed in remote country.
“It’s an open architecture,” says Peter Howard, senior director of business development at GDIT. That means new sensor technologies can be easily incorporated as requirements change.
Flexibility is important because the border challenges are constantly evolving, the terrain varies widely and requirements change depending on the threat. .
“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to border security technology acquisition,” CBP Border Patrol Chief Mark Morgan told a House subcommittee last spring.
Towers effectively expand the border area, giving Border Patrol agents more time to respond.
“The tower systems automatically detect and track items of interest, and provide operators with the data, video and geospatial location” needed to stop illegal crossings and make arrests, Morgan said.
In the most remote areas, more expensive Integrated Fixed Tower (IFT) systems can be deployed, incorporating radar to expand range even further than what’s possible with cameras. But radars are expensive, difficult to maintain and permanent. RVSS can be moved with relative ease, and trailer-mounted systems can be relocated on demand.
CBP’s mobile options include truck-mounted Mobile Surveillance Capability units that mount small radars on retractable masts for movable long-range surveillance. Shorter-range Mobile Vehicle Surveillance Systems, feature cameras mounted on telescoping masts that can detect, track, identify and classify targets of interest, CBP says. And agents also employ hand-carried, tripod-mounted systems that can be operated by two or three Border Patrol agents.
Mobility is important because the flow of illegal cross-border activity shifts from place to place over time, GDIT’s Howard says.
Below the Radar
RVSS and its relatives focus on those trying to cross the border above ground. The Coast Guard and Navy focus on keeping out those who might come by sea. Tunnels, however, pose yet one more problem: No matter how tall the wall nor how far cameras see, tunnels are among the most difficult border breaches to find and stop.
Border Patrol agents have discovered more than 168 tunnels since 1990, some as deep as 80 feet underground, the agency reports. Agents use MarcBot robots acquired from the Army to explore the tunnel interiors.
Ground-penetrating radar can be effective in identifying shallower tunnels, but the deepest ones are beyond radar’s reach. CBP has explored other technologies developed for mining and oil drilling to identify deeper tunnels, but so far those have proved of only limited use, officials say.
President Trump’s talk of a wall is ultimately both descriptive and metaphorical. Securing the border will require a multitude of approaches designed to stop specific threats in specific locations. Customs and Border Protection’s first attempt to solve the border problem with technology – the $1.6 billion SBInet program – was killed in 2011 after repeated delays and cost overruns.
Henry Willis, director of the Homeland Security and Defense Center at RAND, says SBI failed mainly because it tried to be “a single solution that would solve all problems.” Breaking the problem down into more manageable pieces is a wiser course, he says, allowing for more tailored solutions and lower risk.
“We need to look at what are the different threats that need to be countered and how can different technology be used in different ways to effectively improve border security?” he says. The correct approach is “to look at the right mix of technologies in the right places along the border.”