Gear reassignment: home from Iraq

By Chelsea Wallis

Nov. 21, 2011 – Medill National Security Zone: blog

A panelest studies his testimony before the subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security (Chelsea Wallis/MNS)

WASHINGTON – Veterans aren’t the only ones returning Stateside as the operation in Iraq winds down. A long list of expensive gear must also come back from the Middle East.

Meanwhile, the government, under heightened pressure to tighten the purse strings, is looking for ways to get maximum return on investments. The scale-back in Iraq provides a unique opportunity to exhibit fiscal resourcefulness ahead of the 2012 elections.

Congress is already preparing for the return of military personnel. Last week, the House passed a bill to give tax breaks to businesses that hire veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Now they look to reassign tactical equipment and technologies within American borders.

“As a strong supporter of maximizing efficiency in government and making the most of taxpayer dollars,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, at a hearing of the subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, “I believe [Homeland Security] should take advantage of dual-use technologies and surplus equipment where possible.”

It turns out the government already has a hand-me-down system between the Department of Defense and other government agencies.

Second-hand helicopters, light armored vehicles, full body armor, communications equipment and fiber optic sensors are all available to federal, state and local departments.

The Department of Defense “continues to work closely with its interagency partners, in particular [Homeland Security],” said Paul Stockton, spokesman for the Department of Defense, “to build capacity vertically from the Federal level down to the local level, and horizontally across the Federal Government.”

According to his testimony: three $4 million aircrafts went to California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in 2008; an excess $55,000 bomb removal robot went to a county bomb squad in Ohio; $5 million in tactical vehicles and five helicopters went to Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and radiological detection equipment and the required training went to emergency responders.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, pointed out that experienced technicians arriving home from Iraq could potentially continue to work with specialized equipment at home.

But whether the techs are interested is just as unreliable as whether the equipment is truly transferrable.

“Just because a technology works in Afghanistan does not mean it will work in Arizona,” pointed out Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.

“Also,” Rep. Cuellar said, “[Homeland Security] is dealing with a far smaller budget than the [Department of Defense], so some of the technology used by the Defense Department will not be cost-effective for homeland security purposes.”

As the committee explored the equipment sharing already established between the Department of Defense and Homeland Security, the real question was: Can the program use more money?

The Coast Guard response: Well, no.

It was a strange answer considering that panels often tell congress about their inability to perform due to empty coffers.

But in January 2011, the Government Accountability Office released a study condemning frivolous spending on border security. It revealed that not only had Homeland Security run their first plan into the ground, they didn’t have a good strategy for a replacement plan either. The accountability office report highlights said:

In 2005, the Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet) was conceived as a surveillance technology to create a “virtual fence” along the border. After spending nearly $1 billion, DHS deployed SBInet systems along 53 miles of Arizona’s border that represent the highest risk for illegal entry. In January 2011, in response to concerns regarding SBInet’s performance, cost, and schedule, DHS cancelled future procurements.

So the first plan did not produce the expected results, cost more than expected and ran behind schedule. The Department of Homeland Security answer? Another poorly organized operation: Arizona Border Surveillance Technology Plan for the remainder of the Arizona border.

That’s when the accountability office weighed in: Customs and Border Protection did not detail how they came up with the cost of the new system, not the processes they followed or how they conducted analysis. Therefore, the accountability office could not justify funding the follow-up plan.

This could be one reason Coast Guard spokesman Michael Tangora said 2012 fiscal budget allocations were adequate, and he declined to speculate about what they could do with more money.

We need to go from a need-to-know basis to a need-to-share basis, said Subcommittee Chairman Candice Miller, R-Mich., quoting recommendations after 9/11.

It’s now a matter of which specialized toys can be shared and which toys should go back on the shelf.

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