Border Security Revisited

Posted: October 23, 2011 in analysis

My first real posts on this site were a 3 part series about border security, my loyal readers may recall.  As you may recall, in part 3 of that series, I assumed that nobody was seriously discussing putting lethal deterrents on the U.S.-Mexican border (like minefields and electric fences), both for political reasons and for reasons of basic human dignity.

How wrong I was.  Herman Cain recently declared his plan to build an electrified fence on the border to keep out illegal immigrants.  He later said he was joking, but his description of the plan is lacking in humor.

It’s going to be 20 feet high. It’s going to have barbed wire on the top. It’s going to be electrified. And there’s going to be a sign on the other side saying, ‘It will kill you — Warning’

By now, you probably know how this works.  For the moment, let’s assume Mr. Cain was serious, and let’s set aside the issues of killing illegal immigrants in cold blood.  How much would a fence like this cost?

First we have to ask, where do people build lethal electric fences?  The only place I know of is around prisons. Fortunately, the US Federal Bureau of Prisons recently upgraded fencing at a number of facilities, and the costs of the plan were published.  With a little work on Google Earth, I calculated the total perimeter of the seven prisons to be just about 9 miles.  The project was planned to cost $10 million or more, for a rate of $1.11 million per mile of fencing.

This isn’t a perfect estimate, by any means.  It probably significantly underestimates construction costs, but its not clear by how much.  The physical nature of the fencing at prisons is about what Mr. Cain is describing, and any pricing advantage for working in bulk will likely be more than offset by the inaccessibility of the work site.

So, the cost to fence the 1,980 mile border comes to $2.2 billion, at a minimum.  That’s not actually so bad.  It comes to around 20% of the budget of Customs and Border Security, but a project of this nature would fundamentally change the way they operated.

Even if building across the desert causes serious cost inflation, the price of building this project, while significant, is not out of the realm of possibility.   However, the plausibility of this plan is not yet assured.  Electric fences require one other important thing; electricity.

Modern electric fences don’t actually consume a lot of power; they only energize when touched.  However, they need access to a lot of power in order to deliver a lethal shock anywhere along their length.  So the major costs in electifying the fence will be in power transmission, not consumption.

Defining good numbers for this is almost impossible, because of the numbers of variables involved.  Each section of fence must be separately given power, but how long can the sections be?  How close is electrical infrastructure to each section along the entire border?  However, consider the following numbers.  69kV electric lines, suitable for transmitting power a few dozen miles, cost several hundred thousand dollars a mile.  At a minimum, the fence would need several thousand miles of these power lines to connect it to the grid in various areas, as well as electrical substations and other infrastructure.  This would be a very expensive project, but not out of the realm of possibility, if a major policy change dictated it.

But would a fence alone really help the situation?  Electrified fences require constant monitoring to remain effective.  Once the fence is touched, it delivers a lethal shock.  However, now the body is grounding the fence out, and it cannot continue to discharge lethal electricity for any significant time.  In a prison, this isn’t a concern, since there are guards mere seconds away from any alarm.  But in the middle of the desert, what good does the fence actually do?  Can the US afford to energize sections for as long as it takes for agents to respond (considering that there will be many many false triggers over 1980 miles of fence)?  Will the system withstand such heavy use?  How will it help to stop well-prepared groups of people with ladders, insulators, and other tools?

The fence, really, seems like it is just the start of building a set of comprehensive static border defenses, much like the Inner German Border I discussed last time I addressed this issue.  This is a valuable discussion, becasue last time I had no starting point for an estimate of the costs of erecting such a wall in the US.  Now I do ($3 billion or more).  Another cost estimate would be to compare the cost to that of the Israeli Security Fence, which is costing around $3.3 million per mile.  At that rate, a wall would cost $6.5 billion.  As an aside, please note that the Israelis, despite attempting to deny entry to persistent terrorist attackers, did not resort to lethal countermeasures in their static defenses.

But remember, the static defenses of the Inner German Border only worked because in addition to all of the fixed defenses, they were staffed by a massive border protection force, many times larger than that of the US.  As expensive as it is, just building a fence is not enough, even if it expresses a wanton disregard for human life.  There is no way around the fact that controlling a border takes both manpower and infrastructure.

So what about Herman Cain, and his idea?  Well, obviously, I think it is both callous and immoral, but that isn’t what I’m trying to evaluate here.  It is technically feasible to build, but I don’t think it would be nearly as effective as he does.  Or perhaps it was just a joke.


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