The recent contract to an Israeli company for off-the-shelf surveillance technology to be deployed in certain areas of Arizona’s border with Mexico is expected to save 75 percent off the originally expected program costs, although the “jury is still out” on the ultimate savings, the head of border security technology acquisitions for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) told a House panel on Wednesday.

Mark Borkowski, assistant commissioner for CBP’s Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition, said he attributes the unexpected cost savings on the Integrated Fixed Tower (IFT) program and other components to the Arizona Border Surveillance Technology plan due to buying the system off-the-shelf rather than investing in development, and to being flexible in the “technical definition of requirements.” That flexibility means the system doesn’t need to be designed to an even higher level of performance than is ultimately required, thereby saving costs, he told the House Homeland Security Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee.

Remote Video Surveillance Systems used by CBP to track illegal border crossers. Photo: CBP
Remote Video Surveillance Systems used by CBP to track illegal border crossers. Photo: CBP

In late February, CBP awarded a Texas-based division of Israel’s Elbit Systems [ESLT] a $145.3 million contract for up to 50 fixed surveillance towers in Arizona (Defense Daily, Feb. 27). Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), the ranking member on the panel, said the original expected costs were $600 million for the IFT program.

Jackson-Lee asked Borkowski if Elbit is supplying a quality product given the unexpected lower costs and he replied that “Our sense is the quality is high.”

The towers will include day/night cameras and ground surveillance radars to detect, monitor, identify and classify illegal activity within a common operating picture along certain border areas. Elbit will be supplying its proven Peregrine system, which the Israeli government uses to protect that country’s borders.

The initial IFT installation will be in the Nogales area of Arizona during FY ‘15. If the Border Patrol, which will operate the system, certifies the initial system the next two deployments will occur in FY ’17 (Defense Daily, March 11). The contract runs for eight-years and six months and includes operations and maintenance support during that period.

Borkowski said that for the most part, the systems that it has already contracted for under the Arizona technology plan have come in below original cost estimates, which he also attributed to buying off-the-shelf systems and flexibility in technical requirements. These lower costs have freed up resources for other things including flying surveillance aerostats over part of South Texas, he said.

As part of the IFT competition bidders demonstrated their respective systems in an outdoor testbed set up by CBP in New Mexico. Borkowski said that the Border Patrol was nearly “raving” about the Elbit system in their demonstration.

The demonstrations were not “full blown tests” but proved that the technologies have been used before, Borkowski said.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released Wednesday raised concerns about CBP’s plans for the IFT program, saying some of their misgivings are similar to a previous border security surveillance program that the Department of Homeland Security canceled three years ago.

The evaluation of the first deployed IFT system will be a 30-day limited user test, Rebecca Gambler, director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues at the GAO, told the panel. However, she said, Department of Homeland Security guidance requires operational testing and evaluation (OT&E) of systems to occur in the same environmental conditions where they will be deployed.

The limited test plan “could limit the information available to CBP on how the towers will perform in other locations and other different environmental conditions along the border,” Gambler said. She added that the predecessor to the Arizona technology plan and the IFTs in particular, the Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet), lacked test plans that were aligned with DHS guidance.

The lesson from SBInet was ineffective testing can increase program risks, “so more robust testing [of the IFT system] could help CBP ensure the towers meet the Border Patrol’s operational needs.”

Borkowski said there will be extensive testing of the IFTs, beginning with System Acceptance Testing, which is basically developmental testing. While not a formal OT&E, the limited user testing is similar and will answer the Border Patrol’s “questions,” he said.

The problem with “formal” OT&E is that it is focused on the achieving the higher performance standard that CBP was willing to trade off in favor of acquiring off-the-shelf systems at a lower cost, Borkowski said.

“So we’ve tailored the approach to this, but there is extensive testing intended in this plan,” Borkowski said. He countered concerns of several subcommittee members on both sides of the aisle saying that the plan calls for testing “as long as the Border Patrol wants” testing, adding that CBP supports congressional language in the FY ’14 budget bill that additional IFT deployments will not occur unless the chief of the Border Patrol supports them.

Gambler also said that the schedules and life-cycle cost estimates for components of the Arizona technology plan only “reflect some but not all best practices.” She pointed out that CBP hasn’t created an Integrated Master Schedule (IMS) for the overall technology plan, which would give the agency “a comprehensive view of the plan and more reliably commit to when the plan would be fully implemented.”

Like GAOs concerns around test plan, Borkowski said the idea of the IMS is more reflective of the old SBInet program around a system of systems. He said GAO’s recommendation calls for an IMS with a lot of networking and interconnections among programs while CBP’s plan disaggregates the components of the Arizona plan.

“I want to buy IFT whether or not I buy RVSS (Remote Video Surveillance System),” Borkowski said. Taking the GAO’s route “is a really bad idea,” he said.

Given an opportunity to respond later, Gambler countered that GAO’s intent is for CBP to create a “master file” of the various schedules for each component of the Arizona plan.

The overall cost of the Arizona Border Surveillance Technology plan, including acquisition, operations and maintenance, is expected to be in the area of $500 million to $700 million, Borkowski said. Last year, CBP awarded General Dynamics [GD] nearly $100 million for the RVSS system, which includes day/night cameras mounted on towers and other infrastructure to monitor select areas of the southern border. By June, CBP is expected to award a contract for a Mobile Video Surveillance System that can provide long-range monitoring, he said.

Given the GAO’s concerns, Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) said that the IFT program should be halted until performance metrics around the system are established and CBP provides better answers to how it will comply with GAO’s recommendations.

Jackson-Lee also mentioned that Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher has communicated that he needs fewer IFTs in Arizona in favor of increased mobile surveillance technology in South Texas, which has seen a steady uptick in the amount of illegal border crossing activity.

Borkowski said that Fisher’s requirement for IFTs is unchanged but that in the near-term he wants resources diverted to South Texas. To this end, the Borkowski’s office has loaned aerostats to be used for demonstrations and evaluations in Texas and plans to provide the Border Patrol with MVSS that were originally slated for Arizona.

The Border Patrol in Arizona will still get some MVSS systems, Borkowski said, which will free up other mobile surveillance systems already there to be moved to Texas. He added that the cost savings obtained so far through the Arizona technology plan are also allowing CBP to free up resources for deployments to Texas.