"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.
The coordination center contracted with Decision Science Applications (DSA), of Colorado Springs, Colo. With the team at DSA, agents went over their needs and very limited budget, concluding that a commercial off-the-shelf system could significantly enhance DAICC operations. Still, there was the question of cash.
"We budgeted the first $3 million out of our own pocket, just like real people do," Houlihan said. "It was money we had penny-pinched from our daily operations budget, and it got us off the ground."
Off the ground meant the first step in a five-step spiral development process. The first step, completed in the summer of 1996, gave the agency no operational improvements. It provided a vehicle to use in developing the new system and a prototype on which to base future funding requests. The steps in the development process allowed the Customs Service to pay for the project incrementally, while providing regular opportunities for feedback, in-use testing and adjustments. The project has resulted in the most modern air surveillance system in the world, including those used by the U.S. military, according to DAICC staff. The entire process cost $17 million, when computer upgrades in other areas of government run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
"This system will save even more money in the long run," added James L. Durrett, the DAICC computer specialist. "With the old system, it took about [90 minutes] just to change out a power supply. Now we can do that in 15 minutes. It is going to take me longer to find the part than to change it out and put the system back online."
In addition to being easy to maintain and able to handle more targets than ever, the new system gives agents an access speed and range of data that boggles the mind. Each station is set up with a radar sweep screen and a traditional screen for searching databases. With a few pecks on the keyboard, agents can zero in on a target and get its call sign, identification and whether a flight plan has been filed. That 's on the radar screen. On the other screen, that data can be used to bring up registration information, including the pilot's name and address. Flight plans will even reveal the stated purpose of the flight. If all blanks are filled in properly, and the pilot follows specific customs procedures for crossing the border, agents can move on to other targets.
But, especially with flights originating from Mexico, the Caribbean and South America, if the proper forms have not been filed or the pilot blows past the southern border without landing for a customs inspection, DAICC will launch its own arsenal of aircraft. Before it gets that far though, the agents will have gathered a lot of data.
"We can access just about every database you can imagine, from FAA registrations to the DEA's database," said Houlihan. "There's a lot of legitimate air traffic in the southern U.S., but with the new system it's a lot harder for these guys to hide in that traffic or to do quick fly-overs at an airport to make us think they landed there. The radar sites have always been able to provide us with a lot of data, but it's only now that we can use it all."
The coordination center can now overlay radar blips with a variety of digitized maps giving everything from dirt roads to mountain peaks, creeks and rivers, and even cars driving to a suspected landing area are easily detected by the agents in the center. With that kind of data, the center is truly a coordinator now, helping federal officers and local law enforcement set up roadblocks and pinpoint narcotics drop locations.
While smugglers continue to bluff and trick their way across the southern border, the Customs Service is seeing more smugglers willing to pack their planes full of as much fuel as cocaine and circle into Nova Scotia, Canada then try to enter the United States over its northern border. The agents see the move as a compliment to their success in the south, and are quick to point out that the tech upgrade they have done will allow them to rapidly plug holes along the country's northern border as well.
"Dope pilots are always trying to beat us, of course. They look for gaps in the radar coverage or our ability to process the data, and then they try to exploit those gaps," Houlihan said. "Well, there was this old-time smuggler who decided he wanted to get back in the business and decided to use a 1989 route in 1997. Guess what -- we have improved and he's doing prison time. It's not too easy anymore -- these guys have to work for their dope money now."
Raymond Dussault is a Sacramento, Calif.-based writer.
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