DHS might adopt Defense tech for border surveillance, and hire vets to run it

Veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars may find jobs operating satellite communications, blimps and other surveillance technologies stateside for border control, a Homeland Security Department official said Wednesday.

With the drawdown of troops overseas, the Pentagon will have excess equipment and extra personnel to offer the nation, just as DHS Customs and Border Protection takes another stab at building a virtual fence across the southwest border. This turn of events prompted a House subcommittee Wednesday to invite Defense and Homeland Security department officials to share their plans on adapting military systems for domestic use. Curbing illegal immigration, drug smuggling and other criminal activity along U.S. boundaries is a key campaign issue.

While Homeland Security leaders said they are willing to accept the Pentagon's extra inventory, they cautioned that some systems will require additional engineering and staffing to fit within DHS' existing operations.

"The difficulty comes when I bring in a DoD system that I have to plug into my command-and-control system," said Mark Borkowski, assistant commissioner for the CBP Technology Innovation and Acquisition Office. For example, with blimp-like aerostats, which he called a promising addition, "I do have to worry about the training and the development of crews to operate them," he said.

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., a member of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, proposed a seemingly workable solution to this problem, however.

"We've got a huge number of personnel coming out of the military as we wind down in theater in Iraq," Duncan said. "There's an opportunity there to hire already trained DoD personnel to run these systems."

Borkowski welcomed the suggestion with one caveat. "I think you're absolutely right," he said, adding "we would need allocation of funds to pay their salaries and we probably would need some kind of expedited authorities to hire them, but that is something we'd be very interested in talking to you about." Defense's budget dwarfs Homeland Security's appropriations by billions of dollars.

The hearing followed a scathing audit of a new DHS border surveillance plan and calls on the department to install predeveloped military equipment proven to withstand heat and harsh terrains.

This month, the Government Accountability Office condemned a $1.5 billion alternative to the failed Secure Border Initiative network for lacking a credible cost estimate and a documented strategy. SBInet cost taxpayers more than $1 billion before DHS scrapped the program in January to instead adopt technologies more suited to rugged landscapes.

Paul Stockton, assistant secretary of Defense for homeland defense and Americas' security affairs, told the panel, "We have a historic opportunity with the drawdown operations outside the United States to continue to press forward to find ways of supporting the Department of Homeland Security -- so the military technology that the taxpayer has already paid to develop, that we find ways of transferring that technology."

Currently, Defense loans some of its more costly and scarce items, such as robots, to federal, state and local agencies, he said. Massachusetts and Hawaii are borrowing five automaton machines now, for instance.

"We have a night vision loan pool that provides very expensive equipment to local law enforcement jurisdictions," Stockton added. "Demand for this equipment vastly outstrips the supply we have available."

Borkowski said work already is under way to evaluate Defense technologies for positioning along the border. Knowledge gained from Pentagon research is guiding the department's strategy to acquire sensors for the SBInet follow-on, now referred to as the Arizona Technology Deployment Plan.

In collaboration with the U.S. Northern Command, Homeland Security is reviewing the feasibility of using tunnel-detecting tools, DHS officials said. A system consisting of sensors and mobile equipment has undergone testing in San Diego to discern underground construction activity.

"Transitioning technology from the battlefield to the border is not simply plug and play," testified Adam Cox, acting deputy director for DHS advanced research projects agency. He too brought up the economic issues plaguing many civilian agencies: "Uncertain budgets are also detrimental to our relationships with DoD," Cox said.