TUCSON - Because of a continuing software glitch, the first high-tech “virtual fence” at the nation’s borders remains unused, three months after its scheduled debut.
Nine 98-foot towers laden with radar, sensors and sophisticated cameras have been erected across 28 miles close to the Arizona-Mexico border near Sasabe, southwest of Tucson, in an area heavily trafficked by illegal immigrant and drug smugglers.
The towers, each a few miles apart, are intended to deter or detect border crossers and potential terrorists and to enhance the ability of Border Patrol agents to catch them.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said more testing is expected by early October.
“We are now looking to begin acceptance testing in about a month — meaning that’s the point at which they (contracting officials) will say to us ‘we think you can test this’ And we will then kick the tires again,” Chertoff told the House Committee on Homeland Security early this month in Washington.
But Chertoff also said he’s withholding further payment to the prime contractor, Boeing Co., unless and until the pilot project in Arizona works.
Boeing spokeswoman Deborah Bosick declined to comment on Chertoff’s remarks. “We’re working with our customer to solve some remaining technical issues,” she said.
Arizona remains the busiest section along the border with Mexico for illegal border crossings into the United States.
The virtual fence is the first stage of a plan to smother the Mexican and Canadian borders with some 1,800 such towers, all aimed at enabling the U.S. Border Patrol to identify border crossings at pinpoint locations and at improving their ability to intercept.
Department officials said about three-fourths of the $20 million cost for the 28-mile project has been paid.
The fencing was announced as part of a $67 million initial contract last September awarded to Boeing, the bulk going to set up program management, systems engineering and planning support.
The virtual fence system is supposed to coordinate camera, sensor and radar sightings and provide a common operating picture to agents on the ground to intercept those entering the country illegally.
“The integration of all the systems into a common operating picture continues to be the challenge,” said Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke. He said Boeing had put new people on the project who are working to resolve the problems.
In June, with the towers up, there was a brief delay because of a radar problem. Then, federal officials said there was a software problem.
In his Sept. 5 testimony, Chertoff said the original plan was to begin acceptance testing in June “so that we could make a determination that we were satisfied with the product and take possession of it I think in July.”
Acceptance testing is “a little bit like buying a car. We didn’t want to get stuck with a lemon,” Chertoff said.
The individual components worked well but the system integration was not satisfactory, he said.
Boeing has “retooled their team on the ground and replaced some of the managers. ... They are now working through the problems of system integration as we speak,” Chertoff said. “I think they put their Ateam in place to do it.”
As for the testing, Chertoff added, “We should get it done well before the end of the year.”