The legislation that ended the government shutdown Wednesday night also transferred control of a fleet of surveillance blimps from the Air Force to the Department of Homeland security.
The bill authorized funding levels needed to “sustain border security operations, including the sustaining of the operation of Tethered Aerostat Radar Systems” — stationary blimps with radar systems mounted on them. The blimps are used to detect low-flying aircraft involved in drug trafficking along the border with Mexico and can stay about 14,000 feet in the air for up to six days.
The Air Force has received $213.5 million in funding for eight blimps from fiscal 2007 to 2012, according to an October, 2012 Government Accountability Office report.
Sixteen members of Congress sent a letter to the Defense Department and the Office of Management and Budget Jan. 31 urging the administration to keep the blimps operational.
The administration had originally planned to ground the blimps March 15 and the launch sites were scheduled to be closed Sept. 30.
“TARS is an important surveillance and command-and-control resource, particularly with respect to the detection, monitoring and interdiction of suspicious low-flying aircraft,” the lawmakers said in the letter. “We believe that termination of the program will substantially degrade counter-narcotics operations because a suitable alternative to TARS has not been identified.”