Aloft and Alert

By Elizabeth Stoeckmann, DLA Energy Public Affairs

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Tethered surveillance balloons, filled with helium from Defense Logistics Agency Energy Aerospace Energy, are helping law enforcement defeat and deter the smuggling of people and narcotics into the United States.

The balloons, technically known as aerostats, are operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and are equipped with an array of high-powered surveillance and communications equipment.

“The main program we support is the Tethered Aerostat Radar System, and we’ve been supporting it for more than 30 years,” said Doug Smith, director of DLA Energy Aerospace Energy.

TARS, the largest and highest-flying of the CBP aerostats, detect suspicious aircraft flying near the United States’ southern border and report them to CBP’s U.S. Border Patrol officers, who investigate and, if warranted, interdict the suspicious aircraft.

“TARS is the most cost-efficient capability that we own,” according to Richard Booth, director of domain awareness for CBP’s Air and Marine Operations, in an article for the Oct. 29, 2014, issue of CBP Frontline by Dave Long. “It’s like a low-flying satellite system but [is] cheaper to launch and operate.”

Aerospace Energy supports CBP’s continuous surveillance operations for 13 surveillance aerostats, which detect activity in the air and on the ground. By detecting illegal immigration, the smuggling of people or drugs, as well as staging areas for drug runs, aerostats are among the most cost-effective tools in CBP’s inventory.

Aerostats are similar to airships except that they are unmanned, said Rob Brown, CBP program manager for TARS. By lifting radar and other surveillance tools high in the sky, the aerostats increase the effective range of those systems. In addition, the balloons’ presence helps deter illegal activity.

TARS uses Aerospace Energy–supplied helium to fly the aerostats as high as 12,000 feet. This allows long-range radar to overcome line-of-sight constraints caused by the curvature of the Earth and the terrain, according to CBP officials.

The average size of the TARS aerostat is 10 percent longer and 15 percent wider than an average surveillance aerostat and is about 70 yards long.

“The smallest of our tactical aerostats, the Rapid Aerostat Initial Deployment system, can fit within the small belly of the larger TARS system,” Brown said.

Along the Texas border, CBP operates a half-dozen TARS balloons to monitor known entry points for human and drug smuggling into the United States. Because the Rio Grande and the vegetation in these areas make it difficult for agents to detect and respond to the illegal activities, the agents use aerostats to carry cameras high above the terrain. This gives CBP a decisive tactical advantage, Brown explained.

For example, Dec. 1, 2016, U.S. Border Patrol agents from Zapata, Texas, working with the Government of Mexico, seized 6,283 pounds of marijuana, with a street value of $5,026,000. The U.S. agents working aerostat operations observed illegal activity on the Mexican side of Falcon International Reservoir. The agents saw several subjects loading bundles of contraband onto a boat and notified Mexican authorities, who confiscated the narcotics.

Damon Moore, Aerospace Energy supplier operations deputy, said Falcon Reservoir is one of the top bass-fishing lakes in the country and is the site for several major bass tournaments each year.

The segment of the Rio Grande that abuts Texas is the official border between the U.S. and Mexico. With proper licenses, both U.S. and Mexican citizens can access the water. There is no wall, and there are no border checkpoints, which makes the use of the aerostats important for surveillance of illegal activity, Moore explained.

“I have fished the Texas side of Falcon Reservoir on several occasions. And over the past two years, it’s encouraging to look up while on the lake and see the aerostats,” he said. “Because of the lake’s recent history, it gives me an extra sense of security while fishing on the U.S. side of the lake.”

“It’s the diversity of the Aerospace Energy mission that continues to impress and give me a sense of pride in what we do each day at work supporting the Department of Homeland Security mission of securing the border from the trafficking of illegal immigrants and drugs,” Moore said.

Aerospace Energy manages the worldwide acquisition of missile fuels, liquid propellants for space launch and satellites, aviators’ breathing oxygen and other bulk industrial chemicals and gases – including nitrogen, oxygen, argon, hydrogen and helium. The DLA Energy directorate has an enduring partnership with CBP and supplies helium to multiple TARS aerostats along the U.S.-Mexico border in tube-bank trailers.

Aerospace Energy owns and maintains a fleet of helium tube trailers at numerous vendor-fill plants worldwide, ready to provide helium based on customer demand. This includes short-notice requests, since DLA Energy can quickly react and coordinate to provide the gas when needed, Smith explained.

In most cases, requirements are part of a long-term Aerospace Energy sustainment plan that issues competitive indefinite delivery/indefinite quality contracts for bulk gaseous helium to support numerous aerostat programs around the globe, including CBP programs.

“We have a diverse supply base to meet these program needs,” Smith said.

“We coordinate with the Bureau of Land Management [which] manages the federal helium reserve, to buy our helium,” Smith said. “The agreement allows the delivery of crude helium to our suppliers, who refine the helium to required quality levels and then provide the helium directly to our customers. However, with gaseous helium, we have trailers that go to the vendor’s fill points, load the helium and then deliver it to the customer location.”

Smith said they also coordinate with the DLA Energy regions, whose representatives perform quality assurance.

These personnel “go to our vendor fill points to ensure the quality control program keeps the helium we provide CBP on specification,” Smith said. “We do this for all of our customers, whether Department of Defense, or in this case DHS.”

DLA has directly supported DoD aerostat systems for more than 20 years, including operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with DHS/CBP domestically for law enforcement activities.

In 2012, CBP began a series of demonstrations with tactical aerostats to counter illegal immigration in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, Brown explained.

“The Border Patrol quickly learned how to operate and support the camera-equipped aerostats, and now there are six such systems deployed in the region,” Brown said.

After the successful demonstrations, the U.S. Army transferred several aerostat systems and spares to CBP, and now lends the agency additional systems, he said.

DHS’s TARS was until recently an Air Force program supported by DLA Energy. DLA Energy’s strategic partnership for logistics support with DHS has been in place for five years.

“Throughout these program transitions, DLA always remained and continues to remain a critical logistics partner with CBP, supporting all of our critical helium-supply requirements,” Brown said.

“In addition to providing the helium at better-than-market prices for CBP, DLA consistently demonstrates their outstanding commitment to our law enforcement mission and our program personnel,” said Kim Dorman, TARS logistics manager.

“We throw a few curve balls to DLA now and then by relocating deployment sites, changing order quantities off-schedule due to contingencies or simply reacting to unplanned concerns,” Dorman said. “DLA delivers what we need, where we need it and when we need it. DLA’s flexibility, professionalism and mission focus is worthy of emulation across all of the government.”

“We leverage economies of scale [and] buy helium for all of our customers, [which] include DoD, DHS, and support operations at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,” Smith said. “The more requirements we bring to the table, the more interest we are able to gather from industry. The more competition we receive, the more competitive pricing we receive as well. This is a win-win for all involved: DoD, DHS and our helium suppliers.”

CBP has approved spending plans for these aerostats well into the next decade. In 2013, CBP Air and Marine Operations received control of the TARS program after nearly 25 years of U.S. Air Force management.

CBP law enforcement personnel claim these systems are “game changers” due to their effectiveness, relatively low operating costs and overall results in securing the southern border.

DLA Energy Aerospace Energy “will continue to focus on providing logistics support for helium to CBP, as well as all of our customers, in an economical and efficient manner,” Smith said. “I’m proud of the work my staff does in support of this mission and look forward to strategic engagement with CBP and DHS, and helping to secure our nation’s borders.”