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Yuma's border-scanning 'eye in the sky' may close
The military's surveillance blimp known as Yuma's border-watching “eye in the sky” could be grounded in a matter of weeks because of budget cuts.
Tethered at Yuma Proving Ground, the helium- and air-filled radar blimp is a familiar dot on the horizon along Highway 95 about 50 miles from Yuma. But come March 15, it might not be a part of the landscape anymore.
The balloon, or more officially the aerostat, hovers about two miles above ground as it scans the desert for low-flying aircraft that could be bringing illegal drugs into the United States. The Yuma aerostat is one of eight along the southern border of the U.S., with additional crafts in Texas, New Mexico, the Florida Keys, Puerto Rico and, closest by, Fort Huachuca.
The system of blimps is known as the Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS) program and is owned by the U.S. Air Force.
The Air Force issued the following statement regarding the potential decommissioning of the blimps, which have been active for more than 20 years:
“In December 2011, the Deputy Secretary of Defense directed that DoD end its sponsorship of the Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS) program. This decision was based largely on budgetary constraints due to the current fiscal environment. Interagency discussions to examine options to keep the program in operation are ongoing.”
On Thursday, Arizona Congressmen Ron Barber and Trent Franks signed on to a letter with 14 of their colleagues in other states urging Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Office of Management and Budget not to discontinue the program.
The representatives want Homeland Security to receive the funding needed to take over the program — and if not, then for the Department of Defense to keep the aerostats working until a long-term solution is found.
It is unclear how much the program costs.
According to the Congress members' letter, the Department of Defense was told to either transfer the TARS program to the Department of Homeland Security or to end the program. Although the two agencies met last year, “little progress appears to have been made in effectuating the transfer,” the letter said.
Then in January, the DoD issued a request for proposals to conduct a four-phase termination of the TARS program, with all aerostat operations to cease by March 15 and all sites to be closed by the end of September.
“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 letter reads. “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 counternarcotics operations because a suitable alternative to TARS has not been identified.”
A citizen-initiated petition is also posted on the White House website, asking the federal government to keep the radar system operational. As of Thursday, it had about 1,200 signatures. It needs 100,000 by Feb. 18 to get a response.
An aerostat has operated at YPG since 1989. About two dozen people work around the clock at the Yuma site.
The aerostat can detect activity up to about 230 miles away. All radar data is transmitted to a ground station and to the Air-Marine Interdiction Center at March Air Reserve Base in Southern California. A cable keeps the 208-foot-long aerostat tethered to the ground.
The YPG-based operation was recognized by its civilian operator, ITT Systems Corp., as Aerostat Site of the Year for 2010.
Hillary Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6857. Find her on Facebook at Facebook.com/YSHillaryDavis or on Twitter at @YSHillaryDavis.