Tickle My Tribalistic Ears

by Mark Klages, Christian Examiner Contributor |
Photo: AF.mil

If we can get past partisan politics, we will find compromise is the best approach. Why it takes us billions of dollars and months of arguments to figure that out is anyone's guess. I'm talking about the budget and "wall" debate. Here are the facts.

President Trump has stated on numerous occasions, to include campaigning on the subject, that he wants to build a "Big, Beautiful Wall." According to numerous sources, the President's intention is to build a solid, concrete or steel (or combination) physical wall from the southeastern tip of Texas on the Gulf of Mexico to the southwestern corner of California where it meets the Pacific Ocean. This wall will be broken at necessary and authorized entry/exit ports for transportation and it will be monitored by an augmented Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) team as part of the overall U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) effort to prevent illegal entry, defend the homeland against known and unknown threats, and stem the flow of drugs across our southern border.

On the other side of the coin, Democrats like Representative Jim Clyburn prefer a "smart wall" to a physical barrier. Clyburn's proposal includes "drones, scanners, and sensors 'to create a technological barrier too high to climb over, too wide to go around, and too deep to burrow under.'" Again, according to numerous sources, Clyburn's proposal has the same purpose, worded positively, to foster legal immigration, protect our sovereignty, and discourage illicit drug trafficking. Clyburn's proposal accounts for personal property rights as much as it does for aesthetics and obstruction.

Let's look at some very basic math assuming a 10-year lifecycle for the wall as built. (Note: Nothing in this article constitutes an endorsement of any product. This article is informational and does not represent an actual border security solution.)

We'll baseline the President's idea using a 40 foot high "T-Wall" along the full 1,954 miles of the border.

One online calculator predicts the President's wall will cost $21.8 billion based on manufacturing, transportation, assembly, and operating costs. (Note: Omnicalculator by Mateusz Mucha was designed as an argument against a border wall, focusing rather on the justifiable social programs that could be provided in lieu of building a wall.) Based on a "T-Wall" design popular in US overseas contingency facilities, the calculator predicts the wall will cost $2,124 per linear foot to construct and maintain for the first 10 years. That seems pretty expensive, considering the time, labor and materials needed for construction and maintenance, and the inconvenience and obstruction created by a 40 foot wall.

Let's look at alternatives using the Clyburn approach.

Drones like the RQ-1/MQ-1 Predator are built by General Atomics and have an operating time exceeding 14-20 hours on station (depending on home base and transition to target) making it an effective surveillance system. At a cost of $4.03 million per vehicle and an hourly operating cost of $1,500 late-model drones are more cost effective than manned missions and high-technology state-of-the-art Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPV), but still very costly. At an average operating altitude of 50,000 feet, the first Predators could monitor over 500 miles of U.S./Mexico border. (Note: different systems deliver additional capability at increased cost.) Over the 10-year lifecycle, each Predator costs $131 million. If we assume less than 1 percent downtime for maintenance, that's a measly $525.6 million to surveil the entire border for the first 10 years.

Since our Predator system has limitations driven by line of sight, terrain, weather, we need to include other surveillance systems as part of our "smart wall." FLIR offers 360 degree coverage, 24/7 performance, and day/night capability with several stationary and mobile thermal and video imaging systems. One such system that could be considered for our border is the TacFLIR 380-HD. This particular system offers 120x zoom, extending range more than 15 miles to the horizon. Using the current Government Services Administration (GSA) schedule PS-0035 and incorporating $24 million to train one quarter of the 20,000 agents currently assigned to the U.S./Mexico border, and assuming we only use the systems in difficult terrain or to cover gaps in aerial surveillance (30 systems) our initial cost is roughly $37 million. Operating costs are difficult to identify, so we'll assume $100 per operating hour and minimal maintenance downtime based on standard security systems. That adds $263 million over the first 10 years for a total cost of $300 million.

Add in the cost of existing border surveillance systems as reported by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) and we find $2.8 billion in initial cost to procure and install sensors, based on the Arizona-only figure of $288 million. Operating costs (Arizona: 65 systems; Texas/California/New Mexico: 486 systems) at our estimated $100 per hour equate to $4.8 billion. Totals for sensors comes to $7.6 billion over 10 years.

So you see, Readers, a minimalist approach to a "Smart Wall" makes sense. The cost of our simple solution, albeit accounting for zero risk or unknown factors, and assuming no additional personnel needed to fill gaps or operate systems, comes to just over $8.4 billion over 10 years. In all honesty though, the Government never uses a minimalist approach. Replacing the $4 million legacy Predator with a Reaper ($16.9 million per unit) raises our drone cost by $52 million, and the maintenance cost also increases. We could game this all day, but in the end a "Smart Wall" still makes sense.

However, the real solution is in the compromise using both plans. Start with a wall where sensors and drones are ineffective or where they can be defeated using mass violation strategies or underground systems. Make drones and sensors primary in low traffic areas or where history shows low incidence of violation – like bare desert areas where climate prohibits incursion. Use scientific evidence, not politics, to identify which system works best at what location and with what terrain.

Ok, but what does all this talk of a wall, whether smart or physical, have to do with God's love?

I'm glad you asked.

The Bible reminds us that we are not to just follow the herd, not to just do what everyone else is doing because everyone else is doing it. We are supposed to think for ourselves, test our leaders and laws to be sure they align with scripture, and act accordingly. Just because someone votes Republican doesn't mean he cannot see benefit in Rep. Clyburn's solution. Inversely, Democrats should identify the circumstances and benefits in which the President's plan makes sense. If that common sense doesn't lead to common ground, then just read the scriptures.

"Do not treat prophecies with contempt, but test all things. Hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every form of evil." (1 Thes 5:20-22, Berean)

"For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear." (2 Tim 4:3, NIV)

The question isn't whether to back the President's plan or the Representative's plan. The real question is, how much of each?

–Mark Klages is an influential contributor, a former US Marine and a lifelong teacher who focuses on applying a Christian worldview to everyday events. Mark blogs at https://maklagesl3.wixsite.com/website under the title "God Provides where Hate Divides," with a heart to heal social, political, relational, and intellectual wounds through God's divine love and grace. Mark can also be found on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mark-klages-04b42511/.