Budget could deflate USAF border blimps

On March 15, the Air Force may have to pull down key surveillance blimps lining the U.S. southern border if the federal budget crisis is not resolved, according to more than a dozen concerned members of Congress from border state districts who were recently briefed by the Pentagon.

In a letter sent on January 31 to the White House, the Pentagon, and the Department of Homeland Security, alarmed lawmakers said the two agencies needed to fully fund the Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS) program for fiscal 2014 and finish shifting control from DOD to DHS "without any disruption or degradation in its services."

Without the blimps, one month from now the U.S. could lose critical over-the-horizon radar capabilities on which federal counternarcotics officials rely to track low-flying aircraft. 

"We are deeply concerned by the failure, to date, to ensure a seamless transfer of responsibility for the TARS program from DOD to DHS," the members wrote to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, and White House Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director for Management Jeffrey Zients. (The full letter is posted below.)

"Although coordination meetings between DOD and DHS took place throughout 2012, little progress appears to have been made in effectuating the transfer."

The blimps are run by Air Force contractor ITT Exelis and used by counternarcotics officials in U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Last month, DOD issued contract requests for proposals to begin a four-phase process to deflate the program this year "with all aerostat operations to cease by March 15, 2013." All TARS sites and personnel are required to be closed up completely by the end of fiscal 2013, on September 30, according to a December 2011 decision by the deputy secretary of defense.   

"This decision was based largely on budgetary constraints due to the current fiscal environment," said Lt. Sarah D.A. Godfrey, spokeswoman for the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, which controls the blimps. "Discussions are ongoing to examine options to keep the program in operation."

There are eight TARS sites: two in Arizona, three in Texas, and one each in Florida and Puerto Rico. "Our concern," the lawmakers wrote, "is heightened by the fact that TARS is an important surveillance and command-and-control resource, particularly with respect to the detection, monitoring and interdiction of suspicious low-flying aircraft."

The Miami Herald lamented the loss of their  local "Fat Albert" blimp that has hovered over the Florida Keys since the 1980s.

Members of Congress could find out soon if the Obama administration includes TARS funding in OMB's "pass back" budget guidance to DHS. For now, the agency would only say that they are continuing to work with DOD.

TARS "is funded by the Department of Defense through the end of fiscal year 2013.  Discussions are continuing between the Department of Homeland Security and DoD about how best to address the impacts of funding requirements beyond FY 2013," said a DHS spokeswoman at Customs and Border Protection.

U.S. Air Force photo