"We are shoving the dope smugglers out of the air; we want to force them down to riding mules across the border, then we'll catch every last one of them," said Jeff Houlihan, senior detection-systems specialist with the U.S. Customs Service. He is the senior specialist at the Domestic Air Interdiction Coordination Center (DAICC) at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, Calif. "I have seen everything from escaped prisoners to parrot smugglers, but the most important job we have is stopping the drug traffic."
Perhaps nowhere else in America does law enforcement need to lean so heavily on technology as the staff at the DAICC does. The interior of the bunker-like building resembles an air traffic control terminal on steroids. Customs agents fill the room, their eyes glued to dual computer screens at 36 workstations. On one wall, next to several large screens displaying radar data, there is an inflated crocodile. From its jaws hangs a broken-backed model of a white Piper Cub airplane. The image is apt -- if you're trying to ferry a load of cocaine from Columbia to Texas, the men and women of the Customs Service are the crocodiles of the sky.
To accomplish their mission, DAICC personnel utilize intelligence gathered from numerous radar sites lining the southern border of the United States. If a plane takes off from southern Mexico and heads toward the United States a customs agent will pick it up and track its path. As the plane is being tracked, information is gathered and sorted by the hardware behind the paired computer screens and by the human in front of them. Until this year, though, only the human was state of the art; the hardware was out of another age.
"All of our radar staff are former Federal Aviation Administration, Air Force or another branch of the military -- we don't take anyone off the street," said Vincent Bond, the center's public affairs officer. "This is the sole center for tactical control and intelligence data on airborne drug smugglers, and our beat is from the Eastern Pacific through the Caribbean. We have the best people you can get to run it. Last year, we confiscated 1 million pounds of narcotics -- more than all other U.S. law enforcement agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"But the old computer system--state of the art in the mid-1980s -- held us back and limited what we could accomplish."
Out with the Old
The old Legacy system was made up of 25 mainframes packed into an old-fashioned computer room. All that has been replaced by two Silicon Graphics Power Challenger 10000 servers. A backup server is in Oklahoma City. One of the units, about the size of a large suitcase, is online, while the other is used only as a backup. Despite the drastic reduction in size -- the computer room now looks as empty as a barely used storage closet -- modern technology packs the new system with power. While the previous computers allowed the agents to track 3,000 targets -- at least on the good days -- with every 12-second sweep of the radar arm, the upgrade, which is to be fully operational in December, allows them to track at least 12,000 targets per sweep.
"There had been times when we actually had to turn some tracks off to view others, because the data was overloading the computer," explained Houlihan. "Now we can not only handle all the radar site inputs currently online -- there are 40 -- but we are planning to increase those sites that give us input to 70 and we still won't be taxing the system."
To make the journey from the old Legacy system to the new Silicon Graphics hardware required a great deal of creativity from both the vendor and the center.