U.S. border security strategy faces budget woes

Investing in technology to aid in U.S. border security efforts is critical, but budget realities means spending on only the absolute highest priorities

Waltham, Mass.- Officials within the U.S. Customs and Border Protection have a disparate and sometimes misunderstood set of roles when it comes to securing America's border, and the need for innovative technologies is high. But, like many organizations, budget constraints mean technology acquisition needs to be done with an eye on only the highest priorities.

That is according to David Throckmorton, Executive Director of Technology Management with the CBP Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition. Throckmorton gave an overview of the CBP Technology Roadmap Strategy at the 2011 Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) International Conference in Waltham, Mass., on November 15th. The conference brings together researchers and product developers to discuss and exchange ideas on the challenges of homeland security technology innovation gaps.

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CBP's mission is to protect the American public while facilitating lawful travel and trade, said Throckmorton, who began by pointing out that a sometimes misunderstood part of CPB's mission is that it must secure not only the nation's border, but also beyond. For example, he said, inspecting cargo once it reaches U.S. ports can be too late, and the agency is increasingly moving border operations overseas to inspect shipments and imports before they arrive on U.S. shores.

Throckmorton then moved to perceptions of how CBP's mission should be carried out at borders, noting the massive volume of cargo-carrying vehicles that need to be inspected on a daily basis and the crucial role CBP agents must play, each day, in the efficiency of U.S. commerce operations and supply chain.

[See Port and cargo security: How is the U.S. doing now?]

"People often think we need to lock down the borders, build high fences and keep everyone out," said Throckmorton. "You would not have any products on your local store shelves if we did that."

Throckmorton then noted CBP, through his office, is tasked with ensuring all technology efforts supplement CBP's mission, and the primary focus of acquisitions at this time is on technology that can be deployed rapidly and affordably.

Throckmorton showed attendees a long list of technologies, ranging from chemical identifiers, to remote surveillance technology, to thermal imaging machinery, to ultra-light aircraft detecting equipment.

The list was long, noted Throckmorton, and the need is high. But OTIA's role is to choose which to invest in first given the organization's budget limitations.

"We're probably going to have about ten percent of the budget we actually need over the next ten years. We don't need to identify our technology needs, we need to know how to prioritize them," he said. "They (CBP officials in the field) need to tell me what they need to do and I need to go find technology that makes that happen."

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