High Tech Surveillance: Critical for Effective Border Control

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President Trump recently visited San Diego to inspect prototypes for an expanded and more resilient border wall. The eight prototypes on display are all massive structures, some 30 feet high and extending six feet underground. They are designed to be unscalable and extremely difficult to breach. The new barrier system is intended to replace existing, less robust walls and to secure some unfenced portions of the border.

While most attention has been focused on the practical and symbolic value of a physical wall, it has long been recognized by the president and senior members of his administration that a barrier system alone would not suffice to secure the border. In his 2017 confirmation hearings, former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), General John Kelly, stated that "a physical barrier in and of itself cannot do the job, it has to be a layered defense."

Following the president’s visit to San Diego, senior DHS officials went to some lengths in an official press release to emphasize the importance of a multi-faceted approach to secure the border, one in which the wall would be an important but not singular capability. DHS Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen stressed the need for an all-means approach: “The border wall is only one of the tools we need to secure the border – the wall system also involves mission-ready agents, patrol roads, sensor technology, and support resources. Supporting this view, Acting Chief of the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), Carla Provost, declared that “in our experience, walls work. With the right combination of a wall, technology, infrastructure and agents, we have been successful in denying and impeding illegal border crossers.” 

High tech sensor systems have long been a part of DHS’ strategy for securing this country’s borders. CBP operates a broad array of such systems including fixed and movable towers equipped with multiple sensors and communications relays, various mobile and man-portable surveillance systems, unattended ground sensors, tethered aerostats, manned aircraft and drones.

An example of a successful technology program along the border is the Remote Video Surveillance System (RVSS), built by General Dynamics. The RVSS is designed to be low-cost and easily constructed. It relies largely on commercially available medium- and long-range day and night cameras, laser illuminators and microwave transmitters. The cost of each tower is relatively low, and components can be readily replaced as better and cheaper systems are developed. Due to its simple and compact design, the RVSS’ sensor and communications package can also be deployed on buildings.

Using high elevation fixed towers and long-range electro-optical and infrared cameras, the RVSS can look deep into neighboring territory from the U.S. side of the border, providing persistent early warning of potential crossings. This system is particularly useful in providing high fidelity surveillance and warning in border areas where physical barriers cannot be erected. But the system can also backstop a wall to provide defense-in-depth on both sides of the border.

There are now some 150 RVSS sensor towers operating on the southern border from San Diego, California to Laredo, Texas and an additional 50 at various locations along the northern border with Canada. There are also 30 towers that serve as communications relays or support command and control at local CBP stations.

At one time, CBP appeared to be considering a new procurement that would double the existing number of towers, allowing expanded coverage of the southern border, and upgrade deployed systems. It appears that CBP was particularly interested in deploying RVSS in those parts of the border that are more difficult to surveil and patrol. CBP is now working to reformulate its requirements for the RVSS system in anticipation of new procurement.

Under contract with CBP, General Dynamics built a relocatable version of RVSS, essentially a movable, all-in-one unit atop an extendable tower. The system can be moved and set up in a day, with almost no site preparation or ecological impact, and be left unattended for days. The expanded use of relocatable versions of RVSS would permit CBP to rapidly cover most of the southern border at a relatively low cost in just a few years.

The initial pilot program and field testing for the relocatable RVSS was successfully completed earlier this year. It is reported that CBP is looking to acquire dozens of the relocatable RVSS in addition to increasing its deployments of the fixed version.

The relocatable version of RVSS has many advantages over fixed towers alone. It can be moved as the patterns of attempted border crossings change, something that cannot be done with fixed towers. Some 70 percent of the land along the border does not belong to the federal government. Acquiring temporary easements for the deployment of the relocatable RVSS is likely to be less costly and politically sensitive than the construction of fixed installations.

There are media reports that the Trump Administration’s fiscal year (FY) 2019 DHS budget would cut funding for proven sensor programs to ensure sufficient resources to build the wall. Draft FY 2019 budget documents indicate that the Office of Management and Budget reduced CBP’s request for funding for RVSS by half as well as cutting funding for other sensor programs. The amounts involved are relatively small, certainly in comparison to the billions the administration plans to spend on the wall. But they are nonetheless significant in terms of providing the necessary layered defense of the border.

Walls work, but never by themselves and not in all places. Providing CBP with a full array of capabilities, including fixed and mobile sensor systems such as RVSS, is absolutely critical to constructing an effective system for controlling the border. Congress needs to ensure that there is sufficient funding for CBP’s priority sensor programs.

Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a senior vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Gouré has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

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