For the past two years, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has sought to finish building the wall that former President Donald Trump started to build along the border between his state and Mexico. This effort entails significant costs, resistance from local property owners and interest groups along the border, and technical challenges due to terrain issues. It also takes time. The urgency of the border crisis demands a solution that is rapidly deployable, low-cost, and creates minimum impact on local interests. Fortunately, modern sensor and networking technologies offer a solution: Texas should create an electronic fence based on a fiber-optic linear ground detection system (LGDS).
Abbott has made securing the border one of his administration’s highest priorities. He is committing significant state resources, including the attention of high-level government officials, to this effort. As part of the state’s Operation Lone Star, thousands of Texas National Guard and Texas Department of Public Safety officers have been deployed to the border over the past two years.
A pillar of Abbott’s border strategy is the completion of the physical wall that Trump sought to construct along virtually the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border. During his administration, portions of the wall were built along the border, primarily in California, Arizona, and New Mexico. There was only limited construction of wall segments in Texas. Now, Governor Abbott has resumed the process of “filling in” the holes left in the border wall when President Joe Biden terminated the effort.
To help facilitate his effort to control the border, Abbott announced the appointment of Michael Banks, a former Customers and Border Patrol official, as his border “czar.” Banks’ primary task is to ensure the wall is built as soon as possible.
One challenge that the new border czar faces is opposition from local landowners, Native American tribes, wildlife sanctuaries, and environmentalists. One of Mr. Banks’ goals is to convince private property owners to allow a wall to be built on their property.
Building a wall along the entire 1,254 miles of the Texas-Mexico border will be an expensive, time-consuming effort. There is the permitting process, negotiations with local property owners, potential lawsuits, and the construction process itself. Moreover, there are significant portions of the border where a wall will be difficult and costly to construct. However, these areas still need to be under continuous surveillance.
An alternative or perhaps preliminary step is to construct an electronic fence based on proven sensor and networking technologies. Such a barrier could be constructed rapidly along the entire Texas-Mexico border at a much lower cost than an actual wall. Once in place, it will detect and categorize movements across the border, distinguishing trucks from cars, people from animals, and large groups of migrants from individual border crossers.
The heart of this electronic fence would be an underground fiber optic cable, often called a linear ground detection system (LGDS). This system centers on a cable buried a few feet below the surface, through which a continuous laser beam is passed. The laser beam responds to even relatively small detectable changes in vibration, temperature, or pressure.
Advanced computer software employing artificial intelligence is so sophisticated that specially created programs can use this data to determine whether these changes are caused by the movement of animals, human beings, vehicles of different sizes, and in some cases even low-flying aircraft. The LGDS would also detect attempts to tunnel under the border. The resulting information can be used by border security personnel for continuous, remote monitoring of vast stretches of the border. It will also improve understanding of patterns of border intrusions and the development of appropriate responses.
An LGDS would be relatively cheap and easy to deploy. The system is installed by digging a shallow trench and laying cable and laser repeaters, after which it is connected to command and control centers that can analyze the data and distribute the information it collects.
A fiber optic detection system is proven technology that is already widely used in industry, including for security on long, remote portions of oil and gas pipelines. In fact, the Trump administration had planned to complement its physical wall with a fiber optic based intrusion detection system.
A LGDS along the length of the Texas-Mexico border would provide immediate situational awareness for Texas law enforcement agencies. Because of its smaller footprint, a sensor wall would be environmentally friendly and possibly more congenial to the interests of private property owners along the border. Texas security officials should seriously consider building such a system along the border, rather than a physical structure.
Because it is underground, a LGDS is difficult to locate and attack, but that very act can be detected and characterized, bringing a rapid response. It also is impervious to weather conditions that can affect above-ground sensors.
It may be easier to get local property owners and interested parties to accept an LGDS versus a wall. The footprint for a fiber optic cable and associated electronic systems is a matter of a few feet. Once the cable is deployed, the land rapidly reverts to its original character. Likewise, the data created by an LGDS is limited, addressing privacy concerns associated with other forms of border surveillance.
Where necessary, an LGDS can also be supplemented by other forms of electronic surveillance and physical barriers. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has had great success employing a mix of fixed and relocatable autonomous towers equipped with electro-optical and radar sensors. These could be deployed to those areas where an LGDS indicates there is high traffic, either on foot or by vehicle. Remote ground sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles could be added to these towers.
The problem of securing Texas’ border is urgent. The state needs a solution that can be implemented rapidly, widely, and relatively cheaply. An electronic fence based on an LGDS would meet the state’s needs. A physical wall could be deployed based on data from the LGDS to areas where they can be most effective.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Gouré has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. He is also a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.