Lawmaker balks at annual cost to operate border surveillance blimps dubbed ‘eyes in the sky’

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DHS extends multi-million dollar contract to operate and maintain Tethered Aerostat Radar System

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify that there are two types of aerostat systems: the larger more permanent Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS,) and the smaller tethered mobile blimps known as Tactical Aerostat Systems (TAS).

RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas (Border Report) — The Department of Homeland Security recently extended a multi-million dollar contract with a Virginia-based company to operate and maintain Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS) aerial surveillance blimps in the United States, including a large blimp over this South Texas border city.

The $277.5 million contract U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced on Feb. 4 with Peraton Corporation renews the company’s ability to provide logistic support for the aerostat units for up to four years, according to a company news release.

Peraton operates eight of these large tethered aerostat blimps in the United States, including one in Rio Grande City, and several in Florida and Puerto Rico.

Known by locals and border authorities as “eyes in the sky,” there are two types of these blimps hovering high above South Texas homes stocked with multiple surveillance cameras. The larger, more permanent TARS units, such as the one in Rio Grande City, can provide miles worth of surveillance and are impervious to most high winds and weather conditions.

A second smaller type of aerostat blimp, called the Tactical Aerostat Systems (TAS) are more mobile and do not operate in high winds or inclement weather, and are very costly.

Peraton operates the larger TARS units, including the one in Rio Grande City.

Many residents find the blimps — both large and small — intrusive. And a South Texas congressman who sits on the House Appropriations Committee scoffed at the operational cost of the smaller more mobile blimps, saying they don’t fly enough to justify their costs.

A Tactical Aerostat System (TAS) aerial surveillance blimp is seen flying over La Joya, Texas, on Feb. 6, 2020. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Texas who is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, told Border Report that the annual operating cost for each of the smaller TAS blimps is $5.3 million — or $441,666 per month — which should make it cost prohibitive. There are six of these devices currently flying in South Texas, including in Brooks County, and in the towns of La Joya, Penitas, Roma and Laredo.

Originally deemed by many as a viable alternative to building a physical border wall barrier, these blimps were a few years back seen by some as a way to cut border wall construction costs. The units themselves are U.S. Army surplus leftovers from operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

But the astronomical prices have done little more than to line contractors’ pockets, Cuellar said, as the Trump administration continues to build a border wall along the Southwest border with Mexico.

They’ve been spending $5.3 million per year per balloon and I think that’s way too much money.”

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas

“Those Aerostats are military surplus. The money that they spend is for the vendor to do that. I’ve had a problem with the way Homeland has done that,” Cuellar said. “They’ve been spending $5.3 million per year per balloon and I think that’s way too much money.”

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar is seen in Starr County in August 2019. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Cuellar said the federal government is overpaying contractors for the smaller aerostat blimps since U.S. Border Patrol agents actually operate and monitor all of the cameras inside each unit. The contractors merely raise and lower the blimps, and maintain upkeep on them.

“The cameras are handled by Border Patrol, and not by the contractor,” Cuellar said. “We have to be more effective, more efficient “

Border Report has repeatedly asked U.S. Customs and Border Patrol media relations department for information and comment on the aerostats and its associated costs, but they have not responded.

A Peraton official referred all questions to CBP officials.

A CBP website on TARS refers to the units as “Eyes in the Sky” and advertises that the tethered devices “keep watch for trouble from 10,000 feet.”

“TARS is the most cost-efficient capability that we own,” Richard Booth, director of domain operations and integration for CBP’s Office of Air and Marine, is quoted by CBP on its website. “TARS is like a low-flying satellite system, but cheaper to launch and operate,” Booth explained.

CBP admits that no pilot is needed for operations.

“The aerostats are aerodynamic balloons and fly like kites in the wind — no one pilots them,” Rob Brown, CBP program manager for TARS, said on the agency’s website.

An aerostat used for surveillance by the US Border Patrol stands stationary along the highway near Valentine, Texas, about 20 miles from the US-Mexico border, Tuesday, March 28, 2017. Drug interdiction is a core mission for the Border Patrol. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

While the agency has refused to answer questions about the number of cameras on each unit, how far they can see and what they can see, Brown did say that the mere presence of these units — like the one in Rio Grande City — helps to deter illegal migration and drug-smuggling.

“Raising radar and other sensors to high altitude boosts surveillance range, and the physical sight of an aerostat is a visual deterrent to illegal activity in the air and on the ground,” Brown said.

Scott Nicol, of McAllen, Texas, is seen on Oct. 27, 2019, near an existing border wall in Hidalgo, Texas. He said he opposes “militarization of the border.” (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

But Scott Nicol of McAllen, Texas, who is an outspoken opponent of a border wall and militarization of the border, sees the aerostats as an invasion of privacy.

“Aerostats looking down on border residents who are going about their daily lives clearly violate our privacy. So long as the lie that the border is a war zone dominates in D.C., we can expect billions more to be wasted on blimps and walls and boots on the ground, a militarization that is making a few people rich at the cost of our civil liberties,” Nicol said.

Visit the BorderReport.com homepage for the latest exclusive stories and breaking news about issues along the United States-Mexico border.

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