Aerostat will remain afloat, at least through September
SIERRA VISTA — The aerostat that floats above Fort Huachuca will continue to monitor the U.S./Mexico border, at least through September, 2013, U.S. Rep. Ron Barber announced Tuesday.
The Tethered Aerostat Radar Systems, or TARS, was scheduled to discontinue March 15, following an announcement by the U.S. Air Force in January.
Barber was among 15 members of Congress who responded to that announcement, signing onto a letter that was sent to the heads of the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.
Tuesday, Barber’s Washington, D.C. office issued a statement that the effort won a delay in the March 15 shutdown, pending an effort to transfer the TARS program to the Department of Homeland Security.
“These systems help to secure our border by detecting ultralights and other low-flying aircraft illegally entering our country carrying drugs,” Barber said. “Maintaining this program is one important step toward continuing our work to secure the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I am glad that the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security have agreed with me that this system of radar blimps stationed along our nation’s southern border is an essential component of our national security.”
In response to the letter, the U.S. Air Force announced that it will maintain the aerostat system until Sept. 30, 2013, when it will be transferred to DHS.
The systems are operated by a civilian contractor working for the Department of Defense. About 25 to 30 people are employed at each of the eight aerostat sites.
According to one study last year, the aerostat at Fort Huachuca helped Border Patrol agents make almost 100 arrests in Arizona.
In the letter signed by Barber and the other members of Congress, it was asked that Homeland Security receive funding to take over the program and if that is not possible, the Department of Defense should continue operation of the aerostats until a long-term solution is identified, according to the letter.
“We are deeply concerned by the failure, to date, to ensure a seamless transfer of responsibility for the TARS program from DOD to DHS. Our concern 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. We believe that termination of the program will substantially degrade counter-narcotic operations because a suitable alternative to TARS has not been identified,” the letter states.
The letter went on to note House Report 112-492, accompanying H.R. 5855, the Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2013, which was approved by the House on June 7, 2012, states:
• The Committee is aware that interagency discussions are again underway related to the administration of the Tethered Aerostat Radar System program. TARS surveillance data is used by CBP and by the Joint Interagency Task Force-South in support of border security and counter-drug operations.
• The aerostats, which are owned and operated by the Air Force, have not been maintained for a number of reasons. However, the Committee does not believe that an alternative means of supporting the operational needs for surveillance data has been deployed. For that reason, the Committee is concerned about the reduced capability, particularly in the Caribbean, and encourages CBP to work with DOD and other interagency partners to develop a short term solution to address reduced capability as well as the right long term solution — whether that is transfer of the assets, DOD repair of current assets, replacement with other technology or capability, or other solutions.
“We look forward to working with you to address this important budget priority and welcome your leadership in ensuring that responsibility for the TARS program is transferred from DOD to DHS as part of the Fiscal Year 2014 budget request to Congress,” the signed letter states.
Additionally, “at a minimum, if the budget does not propose funding to enable DHS to assume responsibility for this program for Fiscal Year 2014 and beyond, the budget should provide for DOD to continue administering this program in the short term until a long-term solution can be identified,” the letter concluded.
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