EXCLUSIVE: Costly ‘eye in the sky’ border blimps to be grounded in Rio Grande Valley, congressman says

Texas

'If they're getting rid of the aerostats and not building border walls then that's excellent news,' community activists say

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The Border Patrol’s aerostat program in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley — the “eyes in the sky” tethered surveillance blimps that have for years dotted the skyline of South Texas — are being dismantled, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, told Border Report.

Cuellar, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, said that the decision is a “self-imposed rule by Border Patrol” due to high costs that for years have been paid to private contractors to run the Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS), he said.

A tethered aerostat radar system is seen on Aug. 17, 2020, high above LaJoya, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

The program costs $30 million per year to operate six aerostats in South Texas. That’s $5 million per balloon per year, or roughly $416,000 per month to operate each blimp, according to past records obtained by Border Report. This is paid to private contractors who do not monitor the cameras, but check the weather and physically raise and lower the blimps to various altitudes.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-TX (Courtesy Photo)

Cuellar says he has long advocated for the U.S. Border Patrol officials to train officials to operate the blimps to save federal taxpayer dollars. Border Patrol agents already monitor all surveillance cameras inside the blimps in the border area, he said.

“All (contrators) do is check the weather and bring it up and bring it down. They don’t check the cameras,” Cuellar told Border Report via phone. “It costs too much money.”

The actual blimps are owned by the federal government and are Army surplus, most having been used in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The contractors hired by the operating companies are, in many cases, veterans who were trained by the federal government when they were in active military service, Cuellar said.

It is unclear exactly when all the balloons will be grounded. Border Report has asked U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol officials to confirm when the program is to be halted. This story will be updated if information is received.

But as vice chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees all spending for the Department of Homeland Security, Cuellar is privy to information on expenditures and he says this is happening. And he says it is something he has pushed for years.

“We are paying a huge amount of money per balloon,” Cuellar said.

Border Report on Monday reached out to various sources living in South Texas from McAllen to Zapata to ask if they saw any aerostats flying.

Some blimps in the Rio Grande City and Sullivan City area were still flying, but aerostats in Zapata County near San Ygnacio were down, Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell said. However, the blimps only fly during optimal weather, and on Monday, the skies over most of South Texas were gray and a bit windy, so the units might have been grounded.

An aerostat blimp is seen in Rio Grande City, Texas, on Feb 8, 2021. (Courtesy Photo)

Scott Nicol, a McAllen resident who has long opposed the aerostats says he wants them permanently banned.

“The aerostat program is part of the militarization of our communities and it’s unnecessary. We’re not in a war zone. There’s not an invasion happening and so the aerostats, the border wall, all of this stuff is not needed so good riddance,” Nicol said Monday.

“If they’re getting rid of the aerostats and not building border walls then that’s excellent news,” he said

Nayda Alvarez, a homeowner in La Rosita, Texas, who has fought the border wall in a lawsuit against the federal government, says she has gotten used to the devices. And although she considers the overhead devices an invasion of privacy she said a border wall running through her riverfront backyard would be much worse.

“Honestly, I’ve gotten so used to them I don’t even pay attention to them,” she said.

The timing of the groundings comes as the new Biden administration has announced it will implement a “Smart Border” program and is currently reevaluating its tactical and border operations. President Joe Biden has also temporarily suspended all construction of the border wall, and it is widely believed that his administration will push for more virtual technology instead.

This could likely include small unmanned aircraft, or drone-like aerial surveillance devices, as well as mobile towers.

U.S. Border Patrol agents are seen on Oct. 13, 2020, bringing down a balloon device from the skies over Rio Grande City, Texas, next to the Starr County Annex. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Congress has appropriated $55 million in fiscal year 2021 spending for “innovative technologies” used for border security, which is an increase of $30 million from fiscal 2020. Mobile towers cost $86,000 each to operate.

The Biden administration this week is expected to announce more changes to border enforcement operations.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.

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