In the years before the attack on Pearl Harbor, senior U.S. Navy officials had plenty of indicators that the aircraft carrier was ready to render battleships obsolete. What they did not have was any expectation of receiving the resources required to build the carriers they needed. And so by December 7, 1941, the United States had built just eight carriers for its fleet. Four years later, on VJ Day, nearly 100 carriers were in service. When the threat became reality, America found the resources to do the job.
Perhaps it is a similar expectation of inadequate resources that causes the Department of Homeland Security to think so small and produce such limited results in securing our southern border.
Of course, many believed DHS was thinking big when they contracted for a high-tech “virtual fence” to screen some of the most frequently violated approaches from Mexico into the U.S. But the real drivers in creating “SBI Net” were avoidance, not success – avoiding the larger fiscal expense of hiring substantially more agents, and avoiding the political cost of raising the Border Patrol’s visibility. And there were some who preferred an unproven system they hoped would not work, over a more conventional approach that might. As with naval warfare in 1941, we lack the vision and will to embrace obvious but costly solutions already available.
What might a working solution look like? Well, Israel learned the hard way that keeping illegal immigrants out requires a clearly delineated border, and a reaction force ready to meet every incursion within minutes. In densely populated areas of the West Bank, their solution is a barrier 20+ feet high, rounded on the top, and thick enough to prevent a climber from easily pulling himself over. In sparser terrain, the barrier is just two wire fences, with one rigged to alarm. These are separated by a ploughed strip to show footprints. And here is the important point: patrols monitor and respond to any violation within 15 minutes.
Construction of this barrier system met all the obstacles you might expect in a mature democracy. Conservatives thought the fence not robust enough; liberals hated the presence of a fence at all. Environmental laws were used to block and delay construction. Those about to be kept out regarded the fence as a political insult. They damaged the construction sites and stole materials and equipment at night. And Israelis on all sides decried the cost.
But as the bombing campaign by illegal entrants continued and the death toll mounted, resistance among Israeli citizens declined. And as construction expanded, the system began to work. Over the last several years, illegal crossings between ports of entry in the West Bank have been reduced to near zero. So have attacks.
Again the key to this success was not the fence. It was the reaction force that caught every intruder and deterred others from even trying. The fence merely canalized and delayed potential violators, making the job of the reaction force easier.
Critics rightly observe that the Israeli defense is only about 400 miles long, all in accessible terrain. This is a minor challenge compared to our 1,900 mile border with Mexico, much of it in harsh and inaccessible countryside. But a solution is readily available if we are willing to pay the political and monetary cost. That solution is a clearly delineated border, fences and barriers to slow and canalize, and reaction forces deployed by helicopter and ready to respond immediately to incursions.
To begin with the most important aspect first – an Army Blackhawk troop carrying helicopter can travel about 30 miles in about a quarter hour. From a central location it can cover a swath of 60 miles (30 miles east or west) in the standard response time of 15 minutes. Dividing the 1,900+ mile border into 60 mile response sectors suggests that the entire southern border of the United States could be covered by helicopter mounted response teams with fewer than 35 aircraft, at a cost of about $6 million each. A larger support force that included maintenance spares, training aircraft, etc., would be required for actual operations. But even if you tripled the number of aircraft employed, the cost would come in at less than two thirds of a billion dollars as a one-time expenditure for aircraft.
Such an operation would require significant training and maintenance investments, as well as shelters for aircraft and crew in every response sector. Pilot, crew, and tactical operators (perhaps six personnel per aircraft per shift) would have to be added for each sector, as well as a significant administrative, training and support overhead. But the personnel required would number in the hundreds, not the thousands, and contractors might provide significant assets at reduced cost. Personnel costs would run in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year – but not more than a billion.
Such a helicopter response program would still require a clearly delineated border and some sort of a barrier and alert system. Layers of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles providing continuous airborne alert would be costly, but less expensive than the helicopters they would support.
Thus design, fielding and operation of a helicopter based identification, response and arrest program along the entire southern border would be expensive – perhaps on the order of $3 billion to create and $1.5 billion per year to operate. But it would be possible using tried and true methods and technology, at a cost we could afford if we chose to do so. The likelihood of success with these proven concepts is high. In fact, the most likely cost would probably be political, precisely because the program is apt to work.
Now there is a new concept.