WASHINGTON: More than a dozen members of Congress are begging the federal government to save venerable Air Force surveillance blimps — formally known as the Tethered Aerostat Radar System, TARS — that have stood (floated?) guard over the southern border since 1978. (Click “download this document” at left to read the letter).
In this case, though, the natural predator of the blimp may be a better blimp: specifically, the Army-led aerostat program called JLENS (short for the unbelievably awkward moniker Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System). Originally commissioned in 1998 as a platform to detect incoming missiles, JLENS was hastily reinvented in 2004 to track jihadi guerrillas in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the Army remains ambivalent about the aerostat.
So while manufacturer Raytheon hopes to, er, reinflate the program, for now the Pentagon has stopped JLENS at two blimps — both of which are coming to Washington this September to serve as homeland security platforms.
JLENS is certainly more modern than the disco-era TARS, but since the military’s stopped buying the new blimp, you think it might want to keep the old. In January, the Defense Department told Congress they were going to get rid of the TARS aerostats if they couldn’t get the Department of Homeland Security to take them. Looks like DHS didn’t bite or couldn’t pay, so the blimps are going away — unless Congress can stop it.
TARS is deployed at eight sites along the southern border zone: two in Arizona, one in New Mexico, three in Texas, one in Florida, and one in Puerto Rico. So it’s not surprising that it’s largely, though not exclusively, border state representatives who’ve signed the letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and Office of Management & Budget Director Jeffrey Zients. The signatories include four members of the House Armed Services Committee: Ron Barber and Trent Franks of Arizona, Mike Conaway of Texas, and — breaking the border state streak — Walter Jones of North Carolina.
The 16 legislators urged the administration to “ensur[e] that responsibility for the TARS program is transferred from DOD to DHS as part of the Fiscal Year 2014 budget request to Congress.” And there’s the rub: With the budget cycle thrown into chaos by the Continuing Resolution and the threat of sequestration — but with funding almost certain to shrink, the federal government is way behind on its 2014 request.