Homeland Security Technology: Is the US spending enough?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the United States spends a huge amount of money on homeland security technology.

All those x-ray machines, body scanners, and metal detectors at our airports.  All the cargo screening system at our ports and borders.  They must cost the taxpayer a fortune, right?

Well, as is often the case with conventional wisdom, the answer is a little more complicated, especially when you look at homeland security tech spending relative to other uses of government money.

Consider TSA, arguably the best known and most high-profile homeland security technology buyer in the world.  According to its FY 2023 budget request, TSA wants to spend a little over $1B on threat detection technology, mostly to screen people and bags at US airports.

Now one billion dollars is still a lot of money, even for Elon Musk.  But relative to other national security related government programs, it is a fairly modest budget.  By way of comparison, the US Army will spend about $2.2 billion per year over 10 years on just one technology program — augmented reality headsets.  Each new Navy Orca  submarine will cost about $700 million.  The Department of Energy will spend $1.3 billion on high energy physics research.

That’s not to say these programs are not worthy of funding support – simply that in the scheme of other important government technology related initiatives, what TSA is spending for all its threat detection technology is about what these larger agencies spend on a single program in their portfolio of programs.

And TSA’s technology spending looks even more (dare I say “modest”) relative to the scope of its mission.  TSA screened about 585 million travelers in 2021 – a number that is likely to rise in 2022.  In other words, TSA is spending about $0.54 per passenger on threat detection technology (TSA spends a lot more on screening labor per passenger screened, but that is a topic for another post!).


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