What’s Happening on the 49th Parallel

Last month, Tactical Defense Media went to Detroit to take in a conference on the U.S./Canada border. Battling storms and power outages, the organizers ended up putting on an insightful show. Here’s a quick rundown:

The conference was based around the “Beyond the Border” initiative. Signed in 2011 by Prime Minister Harper and President Obama, “The Declaration estab­lished a new long-term partnership built upon a perimeter approach to security and economic com­petitiveness. This means working together, not just at the border, but ‘beyond the border’ to enhance our security and accelerate the legitimate flow of people, goods, and services. Leaders called for the development of a joint Action Plan to realize this goal…”

One major theme discussed was “pushing the border out.” In other words, knowing what is coming into the two countries before it arrives. This entails pre-inspection in ports of departure and prioritizing containers to be searched before they arrive (thereby streamlining the loading and unloading process). The eventual goal is an “inspected once, cleared twice” outcome in which, for example, a container cleared by Canadian customs could be transported by rail into the U.S. without needing to stop at the border for a second inspection.

Caroline Xavier of the Canadian Border Services Agency is helping to lead implementation, and she said progress already being made with pilot pre-screening projects in Prince Rupert, Montreal, and Newark. A pre-inspection pilot program for cargo (similar to pre-clearance stations in Canadian airports now) will also get under way on the Peace Bridge near Buffalo soon. Pushing these initiatives forward will take ingenuity: One obstacle includes electronic seals on containers to prevent tampering.

Ms. Xavier laid out a number of priorities: segment travelers and markets based on risk, facilitate passage of low-risk persons and goods, and address threats early. She noted that this is a major IT challenge for the Canadian government. Other efforts include harmonizing hours at small and remote ports and radio frequency ID at land crossings.

Tom Winkowski, acting commissioner of the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), was bullish on “Beyond the Border.” Because high-level politicians have a stake in it working, he implied, the project should be successful. Winkowski discussed the balance between security and trade, noting that “Good security makes trade faster.” He highlighted successes with law enforcement integration (e.g., the “Shiprider Program,” in which RCMP and U.S. law enforcement work together on the Great Lakes). For the future, critical infrastructure and cyber security will have to be tackled.

A CBP unarmed Predator remotely piloted aircraft. (Wikimedia Commons)

A CBP unarmed Predator remotely piloted aircraft. (Wikimedia Commons)

-On the enforcement front, Eric Rembold of the Great Lakes Air and Marine division of CBP reminded us of the vast distances involved in securing the northern border. The CBP simply cannot cover everything, he said, “[We] need cuing mechanisms.” This, of course, highlights the need for intelligence to focus assets at the right places.

As for how to patrol the skies, unmanned systems were discussed at the show (the Guardian already pulls a lot of border duty). Coast Guard officers mentioned that a platform like the Scan Eagle does not unduly stress their ships and can provide wide-area surveillance for search and rescue and other missions.

The Air National Guard will be bringing home quite a few systems from conflicts abroad, which may come in handy. However, at the moment they need an emergency certificate of authorization, the Secretary of Defense’s approval, and a proper use memorandum to fly their remotely piloted aircraft in the U.S. Without clear FAA rules and public acceptance, the Air Guard will likely stick to helping DHS with training and so forth.

-Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI) also spoke at the gathering. We’ll be putting up an interview we did with her beforehand early next week. Stay tuned…