Charlie Neuman / San Diego Union-Tribune / Zumapress.com

Immigration seen as bonanza for slumping global defense industry

Technologies built for wars abroad are repurposed along the US-Mexico boundary and other international frontiers

A desolate patch of terrain in southern Arizona — crossed mostly by coyotes, jackrabbits and Border Patrol agents — is one of the planned sites for a 120-foot-tall lattice-steel tower. Located two miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, the tower will be outfitted with sensors to allow Customs and Border Patrol to detect and record the movement of migrants and smugglers up to 7.5 miles away.

The simple structure will contain advanced technology that has been already used halfway across the globe in Israel, where its makers, Israeli defense company Elbit Systems Ltd., have deployed their border security products for more than a decade.

The towers being erected in Arizona shed light on the fierce and ongoing debate over U.S. border strategy where they symbolize efforts to adopt a more militaristic policy. At the same time the presence of a foreign company at the heart of such a project also highlights a booming niche in the global defense industry: one where hefty profits can be made by fortifying international frontiers.

While environmental assessments have been done to prepare the sites, project hasn’t yet broken ground due to a protest filed by a competing bidder, a Customs and Border Protection spokesperson confirmed.  

But that’s not the only controversy. In the wake of Israel’s increased military campaign in Gaza this summer, Elbit Systems has drawn fire from protesters in England and Australia who criticize the company for profiting from the Israeli occupation and separation wall, which the International Court of Justice has declared illegal under international law.

"No company is more deeply embedded in Israel's brutal architecture, occupation and segregation than Elbit," journalist Naomi Klein wrote in her 2008 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

Remote-controlled cameras on towers monitor the U.S.-Mexico border in Chula Vista, Calif. Plans are underway for additional surveillance towers to be constructed across the Arizona border.
Leonard Ortiz / Orange County Register / ZUMAPRESS.com

Elbit’s No. 1 client outside Israel is the United States and the towers in the Arizona desert are part of a 9-year, $145 million contract the Department of Homeland Security awarded the firm’s American subsidiary, Elbit Systems of America, in February. Elbit beat bids from U.S. competitors including Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and Raytheon.

The Integrated Fixed Towers (IFT) project consists of radar and cameras mounted on stationary towers that will help Customs and Border patrol detect, track and identify “items of interest” along the Arizona-Mexico border in between official ports of entry. Elbit will also produce all the supporting equipment, including command and control centers.

A promotional video for the Peregrine surveillance system the towers will use boasts that the “field-proven” architecture has “10+ years securing the world’s most challenging borders.” According to a defense trade publication, Elbit’s latest enhancement to Peregrine, a multi-sensor acquisition and surveillance system, was recently delivered to the Israel Ministry of Defense and is currently in use.

If we paid the migrants not to come it would probably be cheaper.

David Shirk

senior security adviser at the Mexico Institute

For opponents of increased border militarization, contracts such as the Elbit one are a window into U.S. border strategy.

“It shows the type of mentality that is driving our border policy,” said Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente.org, an organization that focuses on online engagement on Latino issues. “It’s not a policy of building bridges and collaboration but it’s a militarization strategy that has proven an utter failure.”

The first I.F.T. towers will be erected in the Nogales area, a region of remote, rugged terrain that has served as a funnel for immigrants and traffickers since the implementation of the Southwest Border Strategy in the 1990s. The cost of the Integrated Fixed Tower program could reach $1 billion if expanded under immigration reform, according to Bloomberg News.

However, Chris Wilson, a senior associate at the Mexico Institute who specializes in border security, said the towers do not represent a militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border.

“The Elbit Systems towers are surveillance devices mounted with cameras and radar equipment,” he wrote in an email, saying they were vital to surveillance needs on the border on things like drug trafficking and illegal crossings. “They are not weapons systems, nor are they particularly intrusive.”

The previous program, the Secure Border Initiative (SBInet), didn’t function properly and ran into technical problems, delays and cost overruns. Boeing was awarded $2.1 billion to lead SBInet in 2006, but the Department of Homeland Security eventually called the program off in 2011. “It was a complete disaster,” said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Alden said that ever since 9/11 it’s become standard to use battle-tested surveillance and defense equipment — drones, night-vision goggles, sensors, etc. — in border security, but perhaps nowhere more than the U.S. and Israel. Incidentally, Elbit was the first company to provide drones – the Hermes 450 - to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border in 2004.

While increasing use of military technology along the border is undeniable, Alden said “the rules of engagement are still very different.” For the most part, Border Patrol agents are apprehending people, not shooting them, he said.

But contracts like the Integrated Fixed Tower project show immigration and defense policies remain intertwined at Custom and Border Protection, which spends $350-$400 million each year on security fencing, infrastructure and technology alone.

“A lot of the original rationale [for the border buildup] in years after 9/11 was counterterrorism,” Alden explained. “The problem with that argument is there’s yet to be a single case of a terrorist crossing the border from Mexico and carrying out an attack in the U.S., and only a handful of cases from Canada. So the terrorism justification was always pretty thin.”

Furthermore, U.S. anti-terrorism efforts are for the most part intelligence-driven, he added.

In its annual financial report to the SEC, Elbit concedes its Israeli operations do act as a source of controversy. The government of Norway withdrew its investments in Elbit in 2009, due to the defense company’s role in constructing the separation wall. Several European companies followed suit.

Not that those moves have battered Elbit, which reported second-quarter profits of $703 million last month.  

It’s unlikely the U.S. Department of Defense will scale back its relationship with Elbit for reasons other than overall reduced defense budget. Israel is a leader in border technology, and Elbit has a Special Security Agreement (SSA) with the Department of Defense that allows it to participate in classified U.S. government programs despite being under the control of a non-U.S interest.

There are also signs that Elbit is strengthening its ties with Latin America, where there’s a growing market for drones. In May, Elbit announced it had won a $133 million contract for homeland security from an undisclosed government in Latin America.

According to Todd Miller, journalist and author of Border Patrol Nation, the global border defense market is booming. Companies that were investing in the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are searching for new markets, he said, and finding a lot of success in border security.

“The kind of technologies these companies have produced for wars abroad are being repurposed for border surveillance and border security purposes,” Miller said, citing the Vader system that was used to track Taliban in Afghanistan and is now operated from a surveillance drone along the U.S.-Mexico border.

So while the scale of Israel’s attacks on Gaza this summer stunned even the Pentagon, the conflict will likely serve as a boon to companies like Elbit when it comes to future defense contracts.

According to an August article in Israel’s daily newspaper Haaretz, almost every major Israeli military operation since the second intifada broke out in 2000 has had a positive effect on overseas sales of Israeli military weapons and technology.

According to Miller, the massive profits at stake for private defense companies lobbying for large border projects needs to be part of the debate when Congress determines how much money the country puts into border security.

Expensive private contractors like Elbit are benefiting from the buildup of the U.S.-Mexico border “to the tune of billions of dollars each year,” said David Shirk, senior security adviser at the Mexico Institute and former director of the Trans-Border Institute at University of San Diego, via email.

“If we paid the migrants not to come it would probably be cheaper.” 

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