By Calvin Biesecker

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Friday ended the virtual fence portion of the Secure Border Initiative (SBI), which was not meeting expectations, and instead has directed her department to focus on a new technology plan that will take a flexible approach to deploying proven technologies along the nation’s southwest border depending on the unique needs of each area.

Those technologies may include the multi-sensor, fixed-tower sites that Boeing [BA] has been developing along two relatively short border sections in Arizona, mobile surveillance systems that are also equipped with multiple-sensors, unmanned aircraft systems, thermal imaging devices, and other tower-based Remote Video Surveillance Systems (RVSS), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said.

This new technology plan means the potential for new business for vendors.

“Going forward, the department will conduct full and open competition of the elements in the new border security plan, including any expansion of the integrated fixed towers,” DHS said.

An assessment of the virtual fence program, dubbed SBInet, was released by DHS on Friday and says that the program “as originally proposed, does not meet current standards for viability and cost-effectiveness.” The system was intended to act as a force multiplier for the Border Patrol, giving them greater situational awareness of illegal activity between the ports of entry and allowing them to better direct resources accordingly.

Boeing won the potential multi-billion dollar SBInet contract in September 2006 but various maladies, some of them to do with DHS’ poor procurement processes and others to do with Boeing’s difficulties in getting the camera and radar systems to work as well as integrating them into a common operating picture, have plagued the program throughout. Deployment of the system was expected to be rapid but instead stalled. Still, the Border Patrol, the end user of the system, has said they like the situational awareness it adds in the first two deployments, which is called Tucson-1 and Ajo-1.

Indeed, in its assessment, DHS says that while it is too early to quantify the effectiveness of the initial SBInet deployments, in the Tucson area the Border Patrol initially increased apprehensions and over time activity and apprehensions decreased. Tucson-1 went into operational testing in February 2010.

However, DHS said SBInet as conceived can’t do the job everywhere.

“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,” the DHS assessment said.

DHS says that so far the two sections that cover 53 miles with SBInet have cost $1 billion. The way forward for the rest of Arizona’s border with Mexico, 323 miles, is expected to cost less than $750 million, happen faster, and result in “better linkage between operations and technology, complementing the unprecedented investments in manpower, infrastructure and resources the [Obama] Administration has already made over the past two years to secure the Southwest border,” according to the assessment.

The new plan will take advantage of monies previously requested for SBInet and contained in the continuing resolution for FY ’11. There is $185 million remaining in FY ’11, which will be used to acquire various technologies–excluding the integrated fixed towers–outlined in the technology plan. Purchases of additional integrated towers will come from future year budgets for SBI.

A summary of the go-forward technology deployment plan for select additional sectors is contained in the SBInet assessment. Basically the plan as it relates to the next two focus areas, which include four Border Patrol sectors plus an extension of Ajo-1 into the Casa Grande sector, “contains significantly fewer ‘integrated fixed tower’ systems than originally called for in favor of lower cost systems, including RVSS, which at one time were going to be phased out. For Casa Grande, there are still 17 integrated towers planned and for the four other sectors, 20 instead of 36 integrated towers.

Hundreds of unattended ground sensors will also be part of the technology plan.

There will be “independent, quantitative, science-based assessments” this year along each sector of the southwest border to determine the appropriate mix of technology to be deployed in each area, the assessment said.

DHS is currently doing an analysis of three more high-priority sectors, El Paso, San Diego and Rio Grande Valley. Technology plans for these are due this month. By March, the analysis for the remaining five sectors of the southwest border should be finished along with the technology plan, the assessment said.

The assessment said that the next set of technology deployments will occur more rapidly because the technologies to be used are already proven. Reliance on more mobile technologies means a “more mobile response capability” for the Border Patrol as needed, DHS said.

“A more mobile and flexible response capability will allow us to move with the changes in illegal patterns,” DHS said.

In a statement on Friday, Boeing said it appreciates that DHS recognizes the “value of the integrated fixed towers” that have “increased safety, situational awareness, and operational efficiency” for the Border Patrol. The company said it will continue to support DHS.

Not all is lost for the company. It can compete for additional deployments of border security technology and its existing SBInet contract will be extended through September 2011 to provide maintenance for the two existing deployments, Tucson-1 and Ajo-1. Under the extension the company will also provide maintenance for Mobile Surveillance Systems (MSS) deployed across the southwest border, of which there are currently 38, completion of RVSS towers along the Northern Border, and construction of physical fencing.

CBP late last month took action to begin filling the gaps in security along the southwest border left open by delays in SBInet, awarding contracts for MSS systems to divisions of FLIR Corp. [FLIR] and Griffon Corp. [GFF] (Defense Daily, Jan. 4). If testing of those systems goes well, then over 150 MSS systems could be deployed along the southwest border over the next five years.

In addition to Predator UAS and manned aircraft assets that currently patrol the border, there are over 250 RVSS units equipped with day/night cameras that are stationed along stretches of the border. As with the MSS systems, the RVSS require an operator be located with the system to monitor the sensor display.

The promise of SBInet has been that the sensor feeds can be relayed to a Border Patrol sector station, for example, Tucson and Ajo, permitting one agent to monitor at least feeds from two separate towers. It also means that the systems can be continuously monitored from the comfort of a command and control center that in turn can more easily direct agents in the field to intercept targets of interest. It has yet-to-be determined what role Boeing’s common operating picture will have in future technology deployments.

DHS in its assessment of SBInet says that going back to the early 1990s technology deployments to specific areas have resulted in better border security. The assessment says that RVSS deployments in certain areas have eventually forced illegal activity to move to other areas to avoid apprehensions.

SBInet’s troubles led Napolitano late in 2009 to direct CBP to assess the program and to determine what would be the best path forward. CBP largely completed its assessment of the program last fall.

Initial congressional reaction to Napolitano’s decision was met with mixed sentiments on Capitol Hill. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I/D-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said the original SBInet plan was “unrealistic” and has cost “too much” and believes that the more flexible approach to technology now envisioned is “wiser.”

However, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he understands the decision to end the program, but said “I continue to have very serious concerns about the Obama Administration’s lack of urgency to secure the border.” King commented that it took DHS a year to decide what to do with SBInet and now will take all of 2011 to figure out the next steps.

“These delays are unacceptable,” King said in a statement, adding that he wants to comprehensive border security plan presented with the FY ’12 budget request next month.

While SBInet was conceived, and initially developed, without rigorous input from the Border Patrol, DHS said that the new plan is based on their operational needs.