Loss of aerostat would be blow to border security
A big piece of Yuma County's safety net – and a hallmark of its skies - may be disappearing due to budget cuts.
The aerostat blimp, also known as the eye in the sky, scans the region for low-flying aircraft that could be bringing illegal drugs into the U.S. as part of a radar fence protecting the U.S. border. It's located at Yuma Proving Ground, about 50 miles from Yuma, and is a familiar beacon in the sky near Castle Dome Mountain.
It's one in a system of blimps known as the Tethered Aerostat Radar System, owned by the U.S. Air Force. It houses high-tech detection sensors and can float as high as 3,000 feet above the ground.
According to past stories in The Outpost, the YPG newspaper, the blimp has many advantages, but one of the biggest is it can stay in the air longer while using less energy than other manned and unmanned aircraft.
Now, however, it will come down on March 15 if funding issues can't be resolved. According to the U.S. Air Force, “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.”
The loss of the program is twofold. While numbers aren't known for how many aircraft the aerostat has sighted, the blimp plays an integral role in keeping the Yuma Sector secure.
And, the loss of the aerostat could also mean a loss of jobs in the Yuma area. Currently, the aerostat provides jobs to about two dozen employees. But the ripple is bigger – our aerostat is part of a system of eight along the southern border of the U.S., so jobs would actually be lost in Texas, New Mexico, Florida, Puerto Rico and Fort Huachuca as well.
A group of legislators is working to keep the aerostat up and running. A letter has been sent to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Office of Management and Budget, urging them to keep the program operational. The legislators are suggesting that Homeland Security receive funding to keep the program running. If that isn't feasible, then they are urging the Department of Defense to keep the aerostats running until a long-term solution is found.
And there is already a movement under way from the public to save the program. Supporters can sign an online petition on the White House's website, at http://tinyurl.com/AerostatPetition.
The aerostat is a vital element in protecting the Yuma Sector. Lawmakers need to find a solution to keep it afloat and operational in our skies.