The USA’s SBInet Border Security Project

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Back in June 2006, Boeing and Raytheon teams were preparing for a big border surveillance contract. It was all part of the USA’s Secure Border Initiative (SBI), a comprehensive plan to secure U.S. borders and reduce illegal immigration, including an array of technical aids and elements on both the northern Canadian border and the southern […]
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Back in June 2006, Boeing and Raytheon teams were preparing for a big border surveillance contract. It was all part of the USA’s Secure Border Initiative (SBI), a comprehensive plan to secure U.S. borders and reduce illegal immigration, including an array of technical aids and elements on both the northern Canadian border and the southern border with Mexico. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency would lead and execute both the SBI and related SBInet “virtual fence” efforts, mirroring similar programs underway around the world.

As promised, a winner was announced in September 2006 – and it was Team Boeing. In March 2010, however, funding was frozen. In January 2011, the program was canceled.

Contracts and Key Events

SBI Tower

SBI Tower
(click to view full)

Congressional GAO reports are a useful way to get program histories and assessments, and generally show important patterns through time. The DHS comments at the end of each report also help to receive a fuller picture.

Jan 14/11: Rep. Bennie Thompson [D-MS] of the House Homeland Security committee announces that SBInet has been canceled. This is later confirmed by Secretary Napolitano, who says they’ll use commercially available surveillance systems, UAVs, thermal imaging and other equipment to cover than $750 million to cover the rest of Arizona’s 323 border miles. Aviation Week | Information Week | USA Today | Washington Post | WIRED Danger Room.

Dec 21/10: Aviation Week reports:

“With many observers betting that the SBInet program won’t survive–despite the fact that agents in the field love the gear, as I reported in the November DTI – competitors are starting to enter the arena to fill the gaps in border security.”

These include Raytheon’s Clear View, a java-based set of command and control technologies for sensors; and Zonge Engineering and Research Organization’s Helios Distributed Acoustic Sensor, which may have significant cost advantages over SBInet. This comment by Mark Borkowski, the US Customs & Border Patrol’s assistant commissioner for technology innovation and acquisition, was also interesting:

“…when I talk of open architecture, I don’t mean ACME prime integrator that I pay $5 million and will integrate it. I mean plug and play… When I talk to folks about this, the folks who really seem to impress us are the innovative small businesses… I will tell you that the large businesses don’t get it.”

Dec 18/10: The US DHS renews Boeing’s SBInet contract for another 30 days, beginning this day. This follows the mid-November extension. Washington Technology.

Nov 16/10: American Public Media’s “Marketplace” show reports that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will extend Boeing’s contract for SBInet for 30 days, while an agency review continues. The contract was supposed to expire at this point, hence the need for a continuance.

March 16/10: US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announces a halt to SBINet funding until a review ordered in January 2010 is finished, and diverts $50 million in funds to immediate priority purchases. The $50 million in stimulus bill funding was supposed to accelerate SBI, but will be spent instead on off-the-shelf mobile surveillance units, thermal imaging devices, ultra-light detection, backscatter (full body image) units, mobile radios, cameras and laptops for pursuit vehicles, and remote video surveillance system enhancements. US DHS announcement | CNN | CS Monitor | Federal Computer Week | US National Public Radio | Politico.

Feb 25/10: In testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee, US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano explains why she’s asking for only $574.2 million in SBINet funding FY 2011, down from $800 million in FY 2010.

“SBInet, a contract and a concept that was entered into years ago, has been plagued with troubles from day one… It has never met a deadline, it hasn’t met its operational capacities, and it doesn’t give us what we need to have.”

The Secretary ordered a full program review in January 2010. Federal Computing Week.

Feb 23/10: The NGO pressure group Taxpayers for Common Sense analyzes the FY 2001 budget request, as it applies to SBINet, in “Border Security Still Not Paying its Dues.” The group is opposed to the project in its current form, and especially to the approach taken to implement it.

“Funding for the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol’s Secure Border Initiative (SBI) was cut nearly 30 percent to $574 million in DHS’ FY2011 budget request released earlier this month. The decrease is mainly attributable to the fact that completion of SBInet’s first phase in Arizona was pushed back yet again to 2013. But after a series of tests later this year, according to the agency’s FY2011 budget justification, DHS will decide whether to “acquire and complete the remaining Arizona Border Patrol stations.” Translation: They might just put the kibosh on the whole thing. Funding for the second phase is eliminated in the FY2011 request.

A close read of the budget document reveals other interesting SBI developments…”


Sept 9-17/09: The US Congress’ Government Accountability Office releases a report, and testifies before congressional committees. “Secure Border Initiative: Technology Deployment Delays Persist and the Impact of Border Fencing Has Not Been Assessed” | “Secure Border Initiative: Technology Deployment Delays Persist and the Impact of Border Fencing Has Not Been Assessed” (testimony) | “SBINet: Despite Progress, DHS Continues to Be Challenged in Managing Its Multi-Billion Dollar Annual Investment in Large-Scale Information Technology Systems” (testimony). Excerpts follow, each from a different publication, listed in the same order:

“Since fiscal year 2005, SBI has received funding amounting to over $3.7 billion. Approximately $1.1 billion has been allocated to SBInet and $2.4 billion to tactical infrastructure… SBInet technology is to be initially deployed in two geographic areas –designated as Tucson-1 and Ajo-1–within the Tucson sector… DHS planned to deploy 370 miles of single-layer pedestrian fencing and 300 miles of vehicle fencing by December 31, 2008… Although some tactical infrastructure exists in all the southwest border sectors, most of what has been built through the SBI program is located in the San Diego, Yuma, Tucson, El Paso, and Rio Grande Valley sectors.”

“SBInet technology deployment for the southwest border was planned to be complete by early fiscal year 2009. When last reported in February 2009, the completion date had slipped to 2016… Tactical infrastructure deployments are almost complete, but their impact on border security has not been measured. As of June 2009, CBP had completed 633 of the 661 miles of fencing it committed to deploy along the southwest border. However, delays continue due mainly to challenges in acquiring the necessary property rights from landowners… CBP plans to use $110 million in fiscal year 2009 funds to build 10 more miles of fencing, and fiscal year 2010 and 2011 funds for supporting infrastructure. CBP reported that tactical infrastructure, coupled with additional trained agents, had increased the miles of the southwest border under control, but despite a $2.4 billion investment, it cannot account separately for the impact of tactical infrastructure… Leading practices suggest that a program evaluation would complement those efforts. Until CBP determines the contribution of tactical infrastructure to border security, it is not positioned to address the impact of this investment.”

“To its credit, [DHS] has continued to issue annual updates to its enterprise architecture that have added previously missing scope and depth, and further improvements are planned to incorporate the level of content, referred to as segment architectures, needed to effectively introduce new systems and modify existing ones. Also, it has redefined its acquisition and investment management policies, practices, and structures, including establishing a system life cycle management methodology, and it has increased its acquisition workforce. Nevertheless, challenges remain… Moreover, the extent to which DHS has actually implemented these investment and acquisition management policies and practices on major programs has been at best inconsistent, and in many cases, quite limited… Because of these weaknesses, major IT programs aimed at delivering important mission capabilities have not lived up to expectations… and the timing and scope of an SBInet “virtual border fence” initial operating capability has been delayed and reduced from the entire southwest border to 28 miles of the border. To assist the department in addressing its institutional and system-specific challenges, GAO has made a range of recommendations.”

Feb 13/09: The axe has fallen on the final version of President Obama’s stimulus bill, and some national security spending ended up on the cutting room floor. Taxpayers for Common Sense lists the items removed, including $100 million from the account that funds SBINet.

Sept 10-22/08: The US Congress’ Government Accountability Office audits SBInet, and the reports are not positive. The results are delivered in 2 testimonial sessions, followed by a report. “Secure Border Initiative: DHS Needs to Address Significant Risks in Delivering Key Technology Investment” | “Secure Border Initiative: DHS Needs to Address Significant Risks in Delivering Key Technology Investment” (testimony) | “Secure Border Initiative: Observations on Deployment Challenges” (testimony). Excerpts:

“Important aspects of SBInet remain ambiguous and in a continued state of flux, making it unclear and uncertain what technology capabilities will be delivered, when and where they will be delivered, and how they will be delivered. For example, the scope and timing of planned SBInet deployments and capabilities have continued to change since the program began and, even now, are unclear. Further, the program office does not have an approved integrated master schedule to guide the execution of the program, and GAO’s assimilation of available information indicates that the schedule has continued to change. This schedule-related risk is exacerbated by the continuous change in and the absence of a clear definition of the approach that is being used to define, develop, acquire, test, and deploy SBInet… While the program office recently issued guidance that defines key practices associated with effectively developing and managing requirements, such as eliciting user needs and ensuring that different levels of requirements and associated verification methods are properly aligned with one another, the guidance was developed after several key activities had been completed. In the absence of this guidance, the program has not effectively performed key requirements definition and management practices. For example, it has not ensured that different levels of requirements are properly aligned, as evidenced by GAO’s analysis of a random probability sample of component requirements showing that a large percentage of them could not be traced to higher-level system and operational requirements. Also, some of SBInet’s operational requirements, which are the basis for all lower-level requirements, were found by an independent DHS review to be unaffordable and unverifiable, thus casting doubt on the quality of lower-level requirements that are derived from them. As a result, the risk of SBInet not meeting mission needs and performing as intended is increased, as are the chances of expensive and time-consuming system rework.”

“SBInet program uncertainties, such as not fully defined program expectations, changes to timelines, and confusion over the need to obtain environmental permits contribute to ongoing delays of SBInet technology deployments… According to program officials, as of August 2008, fencing costs averaged $7.5 million per mile for pedestrian fencing and $2.8 million per mile for vehicle fencing, up from estimates in February 2008 of $4 million and $2 million per mile, respectively. Furthermore, the life-cycle cost is not yet known, in part because of increasing construction costs and because the program office has yet to determine maintenance costs and locations for fencing projects beyond December 2008. In addition, land acquisition issues present a challenge to completing fence construction. As of September 2008, the SBI program office was reevaluating its staffing goal and continued to take actions to implement its human capital plan. In February 2008, we reported that the SBI program office had established a staffing goal of 470 employees for fiscal year 2008. As of August 1, 2008, the SBI program office reported having 129 government staff and 164 contractor support staff for a total of 293 employees. Program officials stated that a reorganization of the SBI program office and SBInet project delays have resulted in fewer staffing needs…”

June 26/08: In “Secure Border Initiative Fiscal Year 2008 Expenditure Plan Shows Improvement, but Deficiencies Limit Congressional Oversight and DHS Accountability” (GAO-08-739R), the US GAO reports that:

“For fiscal years 2005 through 2008, Congress appropriated more than $2.7 billion for the SBI program. For fiscal year 2009, the President’s budget includes a request for an additional $775 million for SBI… based on our review, while the 2008 plan is more detailed than the 2007 plan, it does not provide detailed justification for all planned SBI expenditures, nor does it permit progress against program commitments to be adequately measured and disclosed. In addition, the 2008 plan does not clearly demonstrate how specific CBP SBI activities link with the DHS Secure Border Strategy and further the objectives of DHS’s overall border strategy, nor does it provide Congress with reasonable assurance that funding is used for the highest priority requirements.”

Se also Washington Post’s Government Inc. blog.

Feb 22/08: Boeing announces full acceptance of its SBInet Project 28 (P28) border security prototype Thursday from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Project 28 networks cameras, radars, sensors and communications along 28 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border near Sasabe, AZ, southwest of Tucson. P28 was developed as a proof-of-concept of Boeing’s overall SBInet technology solution, and serves as a test and evaluation system in an operational environment.

Boeing says that “using P28 technology, Border Patrol agents apprehended more than 2,000 illegal immigrants during initial operations testing between September 2007 and February 2008.” In the coming months, CBP will conduct operational and technical tests of P28.

SBI mobile Tower

SBI Mobile Tower
(click to view full)

Oct 24/07: The US Government Accountability Office reports on SBInet, in testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittees on Management, Investigations, and Oversight, and Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism. “SECURE BORDER INITIATIVE: Observations on Selected Aspects of SBInet Program Implementation“:

“DHS has made some progress to implement Project 28–the first segment of SBInet technology across the southwest border, but it has fallen behind its planned schedule. The SBInet contractor delivered the components (i.e., radars, sensors and cameras) to the Project 28 site in Tucson, Arizona on schedule. However, Project 28 is incomplete more than 4 months after it was to become operational–at which point Border Patrol agents were to begin using SBInet technology to support their activities. According to DHS, the delays are primarily due to software integration problems… SBInet infrastructure deployment along the southwest border is on schedule, but meeting CBP’s goal to have 370 miles of pedestrian fence and 200 miles of vehicle barriers in place by December 31, 2008, may be challenging and more costly than planned. CBP met its intermediate goal to deploy 70 miles of new fencing in fiscal year 2007 and the average cost per mile was $2.9 million. The SBInet PMO estimates that deployment costs for remaining fencing will be similar… DHS officials also reported other challenging factors they will continue to face for infrastructure deployment, including community resistance, environmental considerations, and difficulties in acquiring rights to land along the border.”

April 4/07: Boeing announces that it has successfully tested the first 98-foot Secure Border Initiative (SBI) integrated mobile sensor tower, validating its infrastructure to ensure it can be deployed while meeting established technical criteria, including interfaces between power, data, cameras, radar and the tower’s security system. The tower houses cameras, radar, wireless data access points, communications and computer equipment, and a tower security system.

According to Dr. Kirk Evans, SBInet program manager, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), “The tower and its components functioned as expected, and we are confident that the design is repeatable for deployment along the border.”

Boeing expects the first tower to arrive at the Tucson, AZ, assembly center in time for a mid-April 2007 deployment, with all 9 towers slated for the Southwest border deployed by the end of May 2007.

Feb 27/07: In “SBInet Planning and Management Improvements Needed to Control Risks” (GAO-07-504T), the US GAO testifies that:

“SBInet’s December 2006 expenditure plan offered a high-level and partial outline of a large and complex program that forms an integral component of the broader multiyear initiative. However, the SBInet expenditure plan, including related documentation and program officials’ statements, lacked specificity on such things as planned activities and milestones, anticipated costs and staffing levels, and expected mission outcomes. This, coupled with the large cost and ambitious time frames, adds risk to the program.”


Sept 21/06: Team Boeing wins. The SBInet contract work will be performed over a three-year period with three one-year options, and is estimated at about $2.1 billion total. The BBC reports that first part of the contract to be announced is a $67 million deal to cover just 28 miles along the Mexican border with Arizona, and notes that Boeing’s tender includes plans for 300 radar towers along the borders. Other sub-contractors will be added to the winning team over time, but according to Boeing’s release its core companies include:

* Centech, in Arlington, VA
* DRS Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group, in Palm Bay, FL
* Kollsman Inc. (an Elbit Systems of America company), in Merrimack, NH
* L-3 Government Services Inc., in Washington, DC
* L-3 Communication Systems West, in Salt Lake City, UT
* Lucent Technologies, in Murray Hill, NJ
* Perot Systems, in Plano, TX
* Unisys Global Public Sector, in Reston, VA
* USIS, in Washington, DC

Additional Readings

* DID – Israel Discovering Transformation’s Limits?. A high-tech Israeli “virtual fence” approach failed by allowing the surprise kidnapping of 2 Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah. SBInet may be very helpful, but its limits must be understood as well.

* US DHS – Secure Border Initiative

* Aviation Week (Dec 15/10) – Violence Along the Arizona Border

* Aviation Week DTI (Nov 3/10) – New Technologies Aid Border Patrol. Seems the field agents near SBInet really like the gear.

* US GAO (Jan 29/09, #GAO-09-244R) – Secure Border Initiative Fence Construction Costs

* Taxpayers for Common Sense – SBINet related archives. The group is opposed to the SBINet concept, for reasons set out in their 2008 testimony before Congress. The items are a mix of testimony, publications, and news reports.

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