A Modest Proposal



As we enter the second year of the Trump presidency the debate about border security rages on, with the focus continuing to be on a building a billion-dollar wall. We’re in a standoff with no clear resolution in sight. It’s time to take a step back and get a fresh view. It’s an important issue to get right because it affects us all, from Washington to Wilmington.

Let’s start with an example from the past — Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The space-based missile defense system, widely mocked when it was launched, has now gained a measure of respect and could be a template for solving border-security issues.

Among other outcomes, SDI is credited for accelerating the end of the Cold War due to the bargaining leverage it gave the U.S. over Russia. Lesser known, but increasingly appreciated, is the wave of innovation that the SDI program unleashed within the Department of Defense and the commercial sector. It catalyzed order-of-magnitude advances in fields like electronics, sensors and detectors, computers, communications and miniaturization.

SDI was classic “outside-the-box” thinking, which led to widespread mockery by the mainstream media as a Reagan fantasy — thus the derogatory nickname, “Star Wars.”

But outside-the-box thinking — or outside-the-wall — is exactly what we need when it comes to border security.

We’re stuck in a 20th-century model — one could argue a Middle Ages model — revolving around variations of a Great Wall, or a “beautiful” wall according to its chief proponent. It would be anywhere from 30 to 50 feet high, opaque or transparent (maybe even with solar panels!), costing anywhere from $12 billion to $70 billion.

We need to move the debate about border security into the 21st century and take a more entrepreneurial approach. At my former company, Chevron, innovation was the lifeblood of growth. And every discussion about innovation usually began around a white board where all ideas were welcome — then debated, tested, referenced and tested again. It’s time to take the same approach with border security. Here are a few ideas to throw up on the white board:

Strategy first, then tactics:  We’ve got the wrong agency taking the lead in developing solutions for border security. The Department of Homeland Security has many tactical talents, but the strategic thinking we need ought to come from the Department of Defense. DOD has expertise and experience at large-scale innovation (see SDI, above) and is continually looking at ways to expand innovation going forward.

The Defense Innovation Board established in 2016 is just one example of how it’s doing this. Comprised of DOD officials with senior executives from Alphabet, CalTech, United Technologies, Google and Instagram, among others, the DIB has made a series of recommendations on how to accelerate innovation across a variety of processes and platforms.

DOD ought to be given a seed budget and a short timeframe with the objective of developing technology-based alternatives to a physical wall — tools like drones, GPS, seismic imaging, advanced radar and others. Using the model of DIB, it ought to draw on the best resources it can from the commercial sector to fast-track solutions.

Let the market pay for the wall:As DOD, in partnership with the private sector, develops new applications for border security we should look for ways to commercialize the technology, licensing it to other public-sector or private entities. This will help defray the initial R&D investment and ongoing operating costs.

Be visionary, not reactionary: The wall as currently conceived is focused on stopping something, not enabling something. That’s backwards. Border security should be focused on making immigration more stable, predictable and efficient — not choking it off. America was conceived as a “big tent,” where all are welcome. Border security for the 21st century, enabled by technology and guided by common sense, should be one of the poles holding up the great American tent.

(This piece originally ran in the Wilmington Star-News, 4/23/18)

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