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Debt Deal Funds DHS to Take Over Air Force Border Blimps

United States Customs and Border Protection

A bill to end the government shutdown signed into law early Thursday by President Obama transfers funding for a fleet of aerostats along the U.S.-Mexico border from the Air Force to the Homeland Security Department.

The aerostats, essentially stationary, camera-mounted blimps that stare at the border, were scheduled to deflate March 15, Air Force officials first announced in January. Then the service allowed a temporary reprieve until Oct. 1, after which operations would be handed over to DHS.

Lawmakers earlier this year had written a letter to Obama administration officials asking that DHS receive funding to take over the Tethered Aerostat Radar Systems program -- or, if that was not possible, let the Pentagon sustain the blimps until a long-term decision was made. 

The funding deal brokered this week states that Homeland Security appropriations must be allocated to “sustain border security operations, including sustaining the operation of Tethered Aerostat Radar Systems.”

The balloon program, currently supported by federal contractor Exelis, cost the government $213.5 million between 2007 and 2012, according to the Government Accountability Office.  

The aerostats watch for illegal jet incursions to help thwart narcotics smuggling and human trafficking, among other criminal border activities.

“These systems help to secure our border by detecting ultralights and other low-flying aircraft illegally entering our country carrying drugs,” Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., said in a statement in March, when the Air Force announced a program extension. “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.”

Eight locations along the U.S.-Mexico border, including two in Arizona, have flown the systems for the past two decades.

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