We need a smart border wall, not a 3rd century solution

By Will Hurd, Opinion contributor

AUGUST 7, 2017- We have driverless vehicles, we can use facial recognition software as payment for goods, and outer space is the next hot commercial travel destination. Yet we continue to debate the efficacy of a third century solution to secure our nation’s southern border.

The American people are frustrated and have every right to be. The federal government should have secured our borders by now. The tools to do so are available and have existed for some time in the private sector.

I used many of them when I worked for a private intelligence firm after nearly a decade of service in the CIA. I am continuously amazed by innovations in security and surveillance technology as a member of the House committees on both Homeland Security and Intelligence. We have access to existing sensor technology that can determine the difference between a jack rabbit and a human moving across the desert. We have drones that can track individuals anywhere on the planet. But when it comes to the border, we’ve allowed an outdated, physical barrier to dominate the national dialogue and stifle innovation.

A one-size-fits-all approach will not solve our complex border problems. While a physical barrier can be effective in urban areas, each sector of the border faces unique geographical, cultural and technological challenges that would be best addressed with a flexible, sector-by-sector approach that empowers the Border Patrol agents on the ground with the resources they need.

Of the 650 miles of existing border fencing, hundreds of miles are in need of repair because criminal organizations have cut through, dug under or plowed over it repeatedly. The drug cartels are using more modern technology than we are to breach our border, so why would we double down on an outdated tool?

What we need is a “Smart Wall” to solve our 21st century border problems. A Smart Wall would use sensor, radar and surveillance technologies to detect and track incursions across our border so we can deploy efficiently our most important resource, the men and women of Border Patrol, to perform the most difficult task — interdiction. Most of this process can be done with computer vision, artificial intelligence and machine-learning, allowing our Border Patrol agents to focus exclusively on stopping individuals and contraband from crossing our border illegally.

The recent horrific human smuggling tragedy in my hometown of San Antonio is a stark reminder that there are nine major criminal organizations operating in Mexico that have zero regard for human life. A physical wall would not have prevented the Zeta cartel from smuggling some of those people across the riveron rafts. On the other hand, a Smart Wall could have detected the crossing and followed the individuals until they were safely apprehended by agents.

For every move we make to defend ourselves, our adversaries will make a countermove. As the National Border Patrol Council agrees, true border security demands a flexible, defense-in-depth strategy that includes a mix of personnel, technology and changing tactics — all of which come at a lower price tag than a wall.

Based on this administration’s budget, each mile of physical border wall would cost $24.5 million. According to leading technology entrepreneurs, utilizing off-the-shelf technology to build a Smart Wall would bring the cost-per-mile down to less than $500,000. With proven tracking technology and state-of-the-art drones, we could have a more secure border at a fraction of the cost — and it could be fully operational within a year.

Based on these figures, we’d save more than $32 billion that could be used to pay down our national debt, hire more Border Patrol agents, or increase CIA and NSA operations pursuing criminal organizations in Mexico and Central America.

I introduced the Secure Miles with All Resources and Technology (SMART) Act to ensure that we adopt the most effective and fiscally responsible strategy to achieve situational awareness and operational control of our southern border. Under my bill, the Department of Homeland Security would be required to deploy the most practical and effective border security technologies available. And before constructing expensive physical barriers, the DHS secretary would have to justify the expense to Congress.

In the past decade, there have been failed attempts at technological solutions along the border. One program in particular, called SBInet, was put in place along 53 miles of Arizona-Mexico border at a cost of $1 billion, then suspended shortly afterward due to poor management. This attempt failed because of a lack of input by the people that would ultimately use the system — the Border Patrol agents.

Additionally, in the short time since this last attempt, sensor technology has gotten so inexpensive that the types of sensors needed along the border are essentially disposable, and advances in data processing will allow for easier integration of disparate data feeds into a single picture that can be beamed to a Border Patrol agent wherever he or she may be.

We can spend tens of billions of dollars on an outdated solution and years fighting eminent domain lawsuits against our fellow citizens, or we can be SMART and deal with this most pressing national security challenge faster, more efficiently and cost-effectively.

A former undercover CIA officer, entrepreneur and cybersecurity expert, Will Hurd is the U.S. Representative for the 23rd Congressional District of Texas. In Washington, he serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, as Vice Chair of the Maritime and Border Security Subcommittee on the Committee for Homeland Security, and as the Chairman of the Information Technology Subcommittee on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.