LA JOYA, Texas (Border Report) — Finding alternatives to “outdated” border wall construction — such as cameras in tethered blimps, tunnel detection systems, underground sensors or mobile surveillance towers — is a goal of House Democrats to deter illegal immigration in the next fiscal year. But the Republican-led Senate has yet to vote on the budget measure, and the outcome will largely depend upon who is elected president.

The House last month approved $55 million in FY 2021 spending for “innovative technologies” used for border security, an increase of $30 million from the previous year, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from South Texas who is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, told Border Report.

The increased spending came as a federal report was released last month critical of so much spending for “outdated” border wall construction.

Three cameras sit atop a mobile surveillance tower that is mounted on the back of a pickup truck at the Border Security Expo held March 11, 2020, in San Antonio, Texas. The high-tech mobile towers are the latest devices DHS officials say they are looking to to help agents in the field in the future. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

The proposed budget measure would add 200 mobile surveillance towers along the Southwest border, which Cuellar said are much more cost-effective than building a permanent border wall system. Cuellar said the towers — which can be mounted in the back of pickup trucks and moved to remote areas and taken up and down within minutes — cost $86,000 each to operate. He says the average border-wall mile costs $25 million.

The funding also would boost usage of high-altitude drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, remote sensing technologies, and mini-aerostat systems. The mini-aerostats are smaller and more cost-effective than the current Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS), which is under the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine division, and under criticism by some lawmakers for paying millions of dollars to private contractors to operate.

A high-powered lens captured this photo on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, of a Tethered Aerostat Radar System flying above La Joya, Texas. The unmanned blimps have many cameras and can photograph and offer overhead surveillance of border areas for miles, U.S. Customs and Border Protection says. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

The aerostat blimps are well-known along the South Texas border, where they hover overhead most days, and residents call them the “eyes in the sky.” The TARS equipment is military surplus mostly used in Afghanistan wars, basically “free” for the federal government to use. But the annual operation price tag is steep — about $30 million each year, Cuellar said.

FY 2021 budget negotiations that began in July resulted in spending another $30 million on these aerostats, but Cuellar says he believes that’s too much. Currently, there are six TARS units in South Texas that can be seen from the highway between western Hidalgo County to western Starr County.

“I don’t understand why the heck the federal government, after they got property from the military paid by taxpayers, are paying $30 million to run six aerostats,” Cuellar told Border Report recently. “Homeland (Security) has found another way to mess this up by paying outrageous amounts to a contractor like they’re in a war zone.”

Homeland (Security) has found another way to mess this up by paying outrageous amounts to a contractor like they’re in a war zone.”

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

Still, that is far less than the $12 billion that has been spent since May 2017 on procurement of land and construction costs to build the border wall, according to an Office of Inspector General report by the Department of Homeland Security that was released in July and highly critical of its own agency for not investing more time and effort into alternative forms of border security.

The July 14 report, titled “CBP Has Not Demonstrated Acquisition Capabilities Needed to Secure the Southern Border,” found that CBP “did not conduct an Analysis of Alternatives to assess and select the most effective, appropriate, and affordable solutions to obtain operational control of the southern border as directed, but instead relied on prior, outdated border solutions to identify materiel alternatives for meeting its mission requirement; and (CBP) did not use a sound, well-documented methodology to identify and prioritize investments in areas along the border that would best benefit from physical barriers.”

A Border Patrol agent walks March 18, 2020, along a border wall separating Tijuana, Mexico, from San Diego. An Inspector General report in July, found building the San Diego sector’s border wall was not a necessary priority due to low illegal immigration traffic. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

The report said building a border wall is a 2008-era low-tech solution that doesn’t fly in this high-tech decade. The report also said the agency failed to provide data showing that building a border wall is the best method for large swaths of the Southwest border with Mexico and used outdated cost analysis data based on construction costs from 2008, not current times, which was about $8 million per border-wall mile.

“We concluded that the cost per mile to construct a border wall in 2008 was outdated,” the report said.

The report also criticized the prioritizing of wall construction in San Diego, where illegal entries are not as much problem as in South Texas.

The report concluded that “CBP has not fully demonstrated that it possesses the capability to potentially spend billions of dollars to execute a large-scale acquisition to secure the southern border.”

CBP has not fully demonstrated that it possesses the capability to potentially spend billions of dollars to execute a large-scale acquisition to secure the southern border.”

July 2020 report by the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security

Congress has proposed spending an additional $75 million for “barrier mitigation” programs, which would include the use of new linear ground technology to help detect those trying to illegally cross the border. This new virtual wall technology is expected to be implemented at three locations in South Texas that Congress has exempted from border wall construction: Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, La Lomita Chapel, and the National Butterfly Center, all located in Mission, Texas, which is within Cuellar’s district.

“I’ve always said if you can put a fiber optic cable you can do so much. These things are so sensitive. You can tell if someone is tiptoeing. It picks all that up and so it’s pretty effective technology at a fraction of a cost,” Cuellar said. “I know some people don’t want anything but some of us have been fighting for a virtual wall for so so long.”

A tethered aerostat is seen from Highway 83 in La Joya, Texas, on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Nevertheless, Cuellar said his goal is to persuade the committee to reduce the aerostat contract fees paid out to private for-profit businesses and perhaps even develop a program to train federal agents to operate the sensitive technology.

But in a video posted on the DHS website describing the TARS program, Richard Booth, director of domain operations and integration for the CBP Office of Air and Marine Operations defended the equipment and the surveillance costs. “Our enemies can see those aerostats along the southern border. They know the efficiency of those systems. It’s very public, how effective the radar system has been,” he said. “We need to keep those things in place. We need to expand the program if we can. Because we can’t do it any cheaper than the aerostat program.”

Aside from providing data on those trying to illegally enter the United States, the balloons have a range of up to 200 miles and help with aircraft location, according to the DHS website. Wireless transmitters send TARS radar data from each balloon, which is then and downloaded at the Air and Marine Operations Center, AMOC, in Riverside, California. “Using the Air and Marine Operations Surveillance System, the AMOC can integrate more than 700 sensor feeds to simultaneously track 50,000 aircraft in flight over the U.S., Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and South America,” the website said.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at