News | Oct. 14, 2021

DLA Energy Commander visits Texas aerostat site

By Irene Smith DLA Energy Public Affairs

Two miles east of the Rio Grande, high above the desolate South Texas chaparral land, tethered surveillance balloons, filled with helium from Defense Logistics Agency Energy Aerospace Energy keep watch.

Observing the large, low-altitude aircraft, the DLA Energy Commander Air Force Brig. Gen. Jimmy Canlas and a team from DLA Energy Aerospace visited the Tethered Aerostat Radar System site at El Indio, Texas, Sept. 29. 

“We are proud of our ability to support the whole of government and to contribute to the CBPs mission of keeping our borders safe and secure,” Canlas said. “We capitalize on our scope, scale and skills in acquisition, storage, distribution, and surge capabilities to support many of our Nations missions.”

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. 

Helium enables the TARS to fly as high as 12,000 feet and are used to detect suspicious aircraft flying near the United States’ southern border. By lifting radar and other surveillance tools high in the sky, the aerostats increase the effective range of those systems. 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 tour included the control room where the site team monitors weather to determine when the balloon can fly. 

Mike Parodi is the CBP TARS Program Manager. He explained how the balloon contains two parts separated by a gas tight fabric partition; the upper chamber is filled with helium and the lower chamber is a pressurized air compartment. The helium provides the balloon’s lift capability and requires a 6-person crew to launch and recover the balloon.

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 providing continual surveillance for the CBP.

Parodi spoke about the eight TARS sites operating along the southern border from Arizona to Puerto Rico. 

“The sites represent 2% of the radars in the surveillance system but account for nearly half of suspected targets detected by radar each year,” Parodi said. “The sites are manned 24/7, 365 days a year and the balloons are flown as the weather allows. So, the surveillance is, for all intents and purposes, non-stop!”

Shonda Rizo is the DLA Energy Aerospace Customer Account Specialist who handles continental U.S. bulk helium orders. She found the TARS site visit informative and the personal interaction with the CBP team helpful.

“These visits build customer relationships that cannot be established without getting out and seeing what they do,” Rizo said. “It was awesome to be able to see what I do every day in action. I loved seeing the helium trailers on site and the balloon up close.” 

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.

The CBP team expressed their appreciation for the Aerospace Energy Helium team and their continued support to the mission. 

“We don’t fly without helium,” Parodi said.