If funding for next-generation checkpoint baggage scanners is maintained at current requested levels, it will be another 14 or so years before the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) completes the purchase and installation of these systems, the agency’s top official said on Wednesday.
“If we took $105 million and just extended that out into the out-years, it would take us until fiscal year 2036 to complete this acquisition, and that’s from a funding perspective,” TSA Administrator David Pekoske told the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee. “And then we would need the follow-on year to fully install those systems we would acquire in fiscal ’36.”
The checkpoint computed tomography (CT) systems have been a priority for Pekoske but, for the most part, the program hasn’t won out in the budget process. In FY ’22, Congress appropriated about $105 million for the systems, the same amount that the Biden administration is seeking in FY ’23.
Pekoske last fall told the House Homeland Security Committee that he needs about $350 million annually to acquire and deploy the checkpoint CT systems during the next five years. TSA wants to purchase 2,400 or more of the systems, which are replacing legacy Advanced Technology (AT) X-ray systems currently at checkpoints.
The CT systems offer a number of advantages over the AT systems, including giving users a 3-D image of the contents of a bag, allowing a more thorough examination and improving the likelihood that advanced threat detection algorithms will someday be paired with the machines to allow automated threat detection. The CT technology is also used for checked baggage screening where automated explosives detection is routinely performed.
With the 3-D imaging capabilities, TSA allows passengers in traditional checkpoint lanes equipped with the CT systems to leave their laptop computers, personal electronics, liquids and gels inside their bags. If an operator has a concern, the potential threat area is localized, permitting a more targeted manual search and thereby saving time.
TSA acquired its first 300 CT systems from Smiths Detection and in two subsequent contracts selected Analogic to provide the systems. Last fall, Analogic received a $198 million contract to provide 314 CT systems and related screening lane components and then, in March, TSA awarded the company a potential $781 million contract to provide another 938 systems.
However, without budget increases for the CT program, purchases and deployments of the scanners will remain slow.
TSA’s FY ’23 $9.7 billion overall request includes nearly $1 billion to begin improving TSA employee pay and labor relations support, all of which is proposed to be funded by redirecting a majority chunk of the aviation security passenger fee away from deficit reduction to pay increases.
Pekoske said there is no room in TSA’s budget to raise pay for employees or pursue more robust acquisitions.
“Our budget is very, very tight as it is,” he said. “Our acquisition program is proceeding along but we have very far out out-year full operating capability dates for some of our key technology upgrades.”
In the last two rounds of CT competitions, Analogic is the only company that was qualified to meet the latest requirements and standards. In addition to Analogic and Smiths, Integrated Defense and Security Solutions and Leidos [LDOS] are also pursuing CT contracts. TSA has systems from all four companies deployed in operational evaluations at different airports.
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) said having just one vendor qualified to bid for the last two CT awards when more companies are part of the program and have a “good reputation” seems like a “low” number and asked Pekoske to review the current evaluation process to ensure more competition. He told Pekoske that while vendors must meet the standards and timelines, TSA must also be transparent about these expectations.
Pekoske agreed that he would like more competition for the contracts but to do so contractors need to be certified to TSA’s detection standards and be qualified in terms of things such as the ability of each companies’ respective systems to meet operations and maintenance targets, staffing and other goals. He also said that moving forward with the awards is important because it “closes a very critical security gap that we have.”
“We know that we need to make that process a little quicker,” he said, adding that discussions with the vendors have been “pretty good…in terms of managing expectations.”
If TSA gets the $105 million requested for CT in FY ’23, Pekoske said that will bring purchases under the existing program standard to 40 percent, meaning there are still opportunities for other companies to be successful.
Pekoske’s five-year term as TSA administrator expires in August. President Biden recently nominated him for another term.