Bury Part of The Wall

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The partial government shutdown caused by a disagreement between the Trump Administration and Democrats in Congress over funding for “The Wall” will hit the two-week mark with no sign of a resolution. It is worth asking a basic question: is a wall necessary to secure the U.S.-Mexico border? If the answer is no, then opponents of the Administration’s proposal for a wall have the better case. If the answer is yes, then we should just get on with it.

But even if a wall is necessary, will it be sufficient? The answer to this question is more complicated.

President Trump has said that without the wall there is no border security and that “the Tech ‘stuff’ is just, by comparison, meaningless bells & whistles.” He is correct, at least in part. Walls work. Yes, they do not do well when attacked by conventional military forces. But short of war, walls provide significant protection against unwanted movements across borders.

Just ask the Israelis. They have built at least four different kinds of walls; one around much of the West Bank, another between Israel and Gaza, a third along the Golan Heights and a fourth in the Sinai. The effects have been largely positive in the sense that illegal crossings and terrorist incidents in Israel were significantly reduced. Efforts to go over, around or under the Israel border wall have largely proven unsuccessful or, at a minimum, complicated and costly.

The U.S. has successfully employed walls and barriers both at home and abroad. Along the border between Tijuana and San Diego, there are two fences. They have dramatically reduced the number of border crossings and improved security for Border Patrol agents while still permitting thousands of legal crossings daily. Overseas, U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan employed physical barriers both to enhance base security and to separate neighborhoods populated by warring groups.

Physical barriers – walls – are particularly valuable where there are large populations close to a border or extremely easy transit points. They make attempts to cross a border more difficult, slower and more visible, allowing border security organizations the time to respond appropriately. They have deterrent as well as protective value.

But what the Israelis also have learned is that walls alone are not enough. In many instances, walls are just part of a layered border security system. Along the border with Gaza, Israel has constructed a sophisticated security system involving a continuous barrier, a no-go zone, electro-optical sensors, radar, drones and, most recently, seismic sensors to detect tunneling. Israel recently completed construction of a barrier that extends into the ocean. It includes a wall of boulders extending hundreds of feet into the sea and a seashore fence, both backed up by a variety of sensors including sophisticated ocean surveillance radars built by the Israel firm ELTA.

U.S. and Coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan employed a similar layered defense system to protect their bases. Physical barriers alone were never sufficient. They were complemented by a mix of ground-level sensors, towers and tethered aerostats with cameras, thermal imagers, and other sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles. Local conditions determined the specific combinations of walls, other barriers, and fixed and movable sensors.

The U.S. southern border needs more walls. But walls alone are not enough. They must be backed up by an array of sensors that will allow the Border Patrol to know who is attempting to go through, over or under the walls.

Moreover, there are significant portions of the U.S.-Mexico border where a wall is either unnecessary or extremely difficult and expensive to construct. These areas still need to be under continuous surveillance. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has invested in a variety of programs to provide enhanced surveillance both of those portions of the border where walls currently exist as well as high traffic areas that lack physical barriers. DHS initially had two programs, the Integrated Fixed Towers and the Remote Video Surveillance System, to provide elevated border crossing detection and characterization but is now moving to a system based on relocatable towers that can be moved as needed.

A new capability that could prove useful in securing the border is an underground perimeter intrusion detection system. These are currently widely used in industry, including for security on long, remote portions of oil and gas pipelines. Such a system uses one of several technologies such as seismic sensors or fiber optic cable to detect movement above, on and below ground. A length of sensors or cables is connected to a controller which analyzes all signals and makes an initial determination of causation.

An example of such a system is the Intelligent Fiber-Optic Detection System (iFIDS). This system uses paired fiber optic cables up to 40 kilometers in length buried up to one meter below ground.  One cable transmits energy while the second receives a return signal. iFIDS can detect, localize and identify multiple intrusions simultaneously whether low flying aircraft, people on foot or vehicles of different sizes. The system also employs intelligent learning algorithms to continually improve the system’s accuracy and reduce false alarm rates.

An underground perimeter intrusion system can provide basic movement detection for long stretches of the border including where walls have been built. But they can also provide information on activities in remote areas. A system such as iFIDS is relatively cheap to deploy and operate. Because it is underground, it is difficult to uncover and attack. It is also impervious to weather conditions that can affect above ground sensors. But that very act can be detected and characterized, bringing a rapid Border Patrol response.

The Administration can get a lot more for its border security money in the near-term by adding an underground intrusion detection system to its portfolio of capabilities. It can backstop walls as well as provide a primary line of defense for those parts of the border where a wall is either unnecessary or expensive to build.


Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure 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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