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Effort to curb illegal immigration from America's southern neighbor heats up

They're no 192-foot Goodyear BlimpTM, but at 72-feet long, and 40-feet tall the hulking white addition to the Texas skyline strikes an intimidating presence.  That is, it would if you could see it -- the special helium blimp floats at between 2,000-3,000 feet in the air, capable of staying aloft for up to two weeks at a time.

I. From the "War on Terror" to the "War on Drugs"

The floater is produced by a large U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) contractor named Raven Industries.  Raven Industries prefers the term "Aerostat" to blimp to avoid any sort of trademark conflicts.

2011 marked a landmark year for Raven Industries with over 15 of the South Dakota-based company's floaters deployed to battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq, including the contested city of Kabul, a key base for America's occupying force in Afghanistan.  Sales of the blimps helped Raven Industries pull in $381M+ USD in revenue in 2011 [source].

Unofficially dubbed "The Eye in the Sky" or "The Floating Eye" by servicepeople, the DOD is now offering up some of the prized blimps to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency and its parent, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for use in policing the Mexican border.

The Border Patrol preps the Aerostar for a test launch. [Image Source: U.S. CBP]

The Aerostar will be equipped with the "Kestrel" wide-area scanning sensor from Logos Technologies and the Wescam sensor from L-3 Communications, which provides narrower range multi-imaging.

II. Is the Price Right?

Equipped with sophisticated video and infrared sensors, the blimps cost the DOD between $1M USD and $5M USD, according to The Wall Street Journal (officially the cost and configurations are classified).  But if the CBP and DHS enjoy their free trial, they can pick up virtually the whole fleet for $27M USD.

But the CBP says it is wary of jumping in too fast.  It's still reeling from the DHS's decision to pull the controversial billion dollar "electric fence" initiative, which would have used cameras, radar, and other devices to create a wireless sensor network spanning the entire border.

The 2011 Congressional budget for the DHS [PDF] allocated $9.8B USD to the CBP, of which between $100M and $130M USD is reserved for equipment, according to a WSJ interview with Mark Borkowski, assistant commissioner at the CBP's Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition.

The Aerostar in flight over Afghanistan in Sept. 2011. [Image Source: Reuters]

The Raven Industries Aerostar would be a deal in a way, but they would also drain between a third and fourth of the yearly equipment budget.  Thus the CBP is also considering alternatives.

It's already field testing modified Predator drones, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) used extensively by the DOD.  Also on its radar is a rival blimp from TCOM LP of Columbia, Maryland.  The TCOM design is less expensive, but also less subtle -- it's tethered to the ground by a long communications cable.

But tests of both the TCOM blimp and the Raven Industries design are still in progress in east Texas, with the CBP uncertain whether they will be a good fit.  After all, illegal entrants into the country operate in a rather different fashion than Afghani insurgents, and there's substantial differences in the desert landscape as well.

III. Border Policing, Domestic Surveillance are Topics Mired in Controversy

As the DHS steps up its surveillance efforts, there are also tough questions regarding this form of ubiquitous government surveillance.  Some fear the U.S. descending further into a "police state" in which armed flyers and floaters are used to spy on and assault people in urban and suburban America.

And then there's the issue of the enforcement itself.  At 1,969 miles [source] the U.S.-Mexican border is an enforcer's nightmare.  

The issue of illegal immigration has historically been, and is today a hyper-politicized issue, and in an election year tensions are running high.  The only alleviating factor is a surprising reverse migration of immigrants (legal and illegal) returning back to Mexico due to the lack of jobs in America, according to the Pew Hispanic Center [source].

Even with the ebb of net immigration, the flow of unauthorized Mexican nationals adds yet another persistent wrinkle -- the "War on Drugs", first declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971.

In many ways the War on Drugs has earned a place among America's numerous historic overseas conflicts in terms of cost and destruction.  To date it has drained over $1T USD [source].  

Marijuana Mexico
Mexico provides the majority of U.S. marijuana. [Image Source: AFP]

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that many tons of marijuana are smuggled across the Mexican border per year.  It labels Mexico as the biggest source of marijuana in the U.S., where cultivation is illegal despite being agriculturally viable.

In 2011 the nation budgeted an estimated $15.5B USD [source] to the U.S. Drug Czar to perpetuate this domestic "War" -- 31 times the inflation-adjusted budget Nixon devoted.  Much of the war involved banning the most used illegal drug -- marijuana, a drug top physicians say is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco.  Approximately half of U.S. drug arrests are attributable to marijuana possession.

Experts estimate that the U.S. loses almost $50B USD [source] in potential tax revenue by outlawing marijuana -- roughly $2T USD over the forty years of the war on drugs.  Combined with the net cost, that works out to roughly $3T USD -- enough to pay off a third of the U.S. national debt [source].

IV. Members of Congress Critical of DHS Spending

Some like Texas Rep. Ron Paul (R), who have a front row view of the immigration debate and "War on Drugs" have advocated decriminalizing marijuana.  Rep. Paul is quoted as saying, "And marijuana - I think it's tragic what's happening today in the drug war. Since the early '70s we've spent maybe $200 to $300 billion on the drug war. That's not been any good. This whole effort on the drug war doesn't make any sense at all to me."

Ron Paul
Rep. Ron Paul says spending billions to "fight" a domestic "War on Drugs" is unconstitutional.
[Image Source: AP]

Rep. Paul also supports disbanding the DHS, which at $53B USD constituted approximately 1.4 percent of the $3.83T USD spent by the Obama administration in 2011.

Amid all the controversy -- the war on drugs, the war on illegal immigration, domestic surveillance and the police state -- one perpetual criticism of the blimp --er-- aerostat is easy to lay to rest: "But what if they're shot."

Raven Industries CEO Dan Rykhus comments, "We actually like when they [insurgents] try to shoot at them as there's technology on the blimp that allows us to train the camera on the source of that gunfire."

The aerostats are at near equal-pressure, which means the pressure on the inside of the blimp is almost the same as on the outside.  What that means is that if they are hit, the helium inside won't rush out.

In other words, while buying the blimps may draw the ire of some fiscal conservatives, don't accuse the floaters of being gun fodder for drug traffickers.

Sources: Raven Aerostar, WSJ

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RE: The War On Drugs...
By tayb on 8/15/2012 7:27:27 PM , Rating: 5
I fail to see how legalizing marijuana would be any different than the legalization and regulation of alcohol. Shipped illegally across the borders? Why would they continue to do that long term?

Legalizing marijuana, and most drugs for that matter, would essentially end the war on drugs which immediately saves tens of billions annually. Then you add in the added tax revenue, which will be substantial, and the decreased prison population, which will also be substantial, and you're talking about net economic effects to the tune of $50+ billion a year.

Not to mention that if marijuana were to be legalized legitimate farms and businesses would pop up all over the country and hire workers. Distribution lines, factory workers, farms, drivers, packaging, etc.

This sort of thing seems like it should be right up your alley. Cut spending, cut federal programs, cut federal laws, etc.

RE: The War On Drugs...
By Captain Orgazmo on 8/15/2012 7:36:22 PM , Rating: 2
I lean conservative, but yeah, stupid to keep a relatively harmless plant illegal (while tobacco, alcohol, and opiate painkillers are legal). Legalize, and the market will drive prices through the floor and take a big chunk out of the cartel and street/biker gangs throughout North America. And in addition to the points you mention, prevent kids from being exposed to other drugs through dealers.

RE: The War On Drugs...
By Reclaimer77 on 8/15/12, Rating: -1
RE: The War On Drugs...
By AskMe4Pars on 8/15/2012 9:56:40 PM , Rating: 2
I agree, this would stimulate the economy especially if all drugs were decriminalized. Even if 50% of the money saved/earned through taxes was used on treatment programs the country would be much better off. It is never going to happen though. Privatized prison systems, the DEA, boarder partol, drug courts, and tens of thousands of police officers dedicated to fighting a non winnable war ensure that we will continue to fight a war that cannot be won. It is so ingrained into our system, politically and economically that anything will change. We are sheeple.

RE: The War On Drugs...
By inperfectdarkness on 8/16/2012 3:12:50 AM , Rating: 4
This. And once pot is legal and the benefits to it being legal are understood, the push to make all narcotics legal will soon follow. Drugs will become simply another taxed vice. Prison populations will decrease by 25-50%. The DEA can be eliminated, and the FDA can turn a healthy profit from regulation. The USDA can stop subsidizing farmers to not grow crops. Gang violence will plummet, since the key racket gangs profit from will be defunct. Black markets will shrink substantially, since fencing stolen products directly for drugs will be impossible.

But perhaps the best benefit of all is that all the idiots who lack self-control will OD within the first 6 months, and the gene-pool will naturally chlorinate itself.

RE: The War On Drugs...
By Ringold on 8/16/2012 6:23:23 AM , Rating: 2
And once pot is legal and the benefits to it being legal are understood, the push to make all narcotics legal will soon follow

I've got a feeling America isn't quite that libertarian, though it wouldn't be a bad thing, because...

all the idiots who lack self-control will OD within the first 6 months, and the gene-pool will naturally chlorinate itself.

If people wanted it, they could load up at WalMart and have at it, after duly paying the appropriate local sales tax and embedded corporate taxes on their narcotic of choice. Most of the price of street drugs is dealer mark-up and inefficiency involved in illegal distribution, so we could tax the bejesus out of it and WalMart could still sell it for a little less, and everybody makes a buck.

Only downside? We're too much a bleeding-heart society.. If those idiots OD but screw up, then we just end up paying for expensive care for the rest of their miserable brain-damaged lives. Same thing if they just abuse the wrong things for too long; I can see Nancy Pelosi wanting to usher them on to SSI disability.

No such particular health risks with just marijuana, though.

RE: The War On Drugs...
By RufusM on 8/16/2012 10:49:52 AM , Rating: 2
This is the problem with having government funded medical. Having government funded medical means the government has an interest in controlling what people do in their own homes: smoking, alcohol, drugs etc. because they need to control costs.

People need to be allowed to be stupid and make their own mistakes. If, in the process of being stupid, people break the law then they will pay the price for breaking the law. If people do it in the privacy of their home then they're on their own.

It's called responsibility; something today's victim-mentality, bail-out society knows nothing about.

RE: The War On Drugs...
By Ammohunt on 8/16/2012 11:14:31 AM , Rating: 3
But perhaps the best benefit of all is that all the idiots who lack self-control will OD within the first 6 months, and the gene-pool will naturally chlorinate itself.

Idiots like kids in their late teens early 20ies? Who might be very intelligent but lack basic common sense. These substances being illegal keep many away from their abuse; Take that deterrent away and it’s your child making a bad choice one night being culled…

RE: The War On Drugs...
By MrBlastman on 8/16/2012 11:19:30 AM , Rating: 2
Exactly and this is why as logical as the argument for total legalization might be, I can't support it.

RE: The War On Drugs...
By inperfectdarkness on 8/18/2012 5:41:43 AM , Rating: 2
Entirely disagree. Making something illegal has always increased the allure of it. We did much better on making cigarettes a social-taboo via marketing and ads than we did with making alcohol illegal by legislating it.

RE: The War On Drugs...
By Reclaimer77 on 8/18/2012 9:28:44 AM , Rating: 2
Pot is one thing, but you're nuts if you think the American population is going to embrace hard drugs like heroin and crack being legalized.

Frankly I'm not even sure how I feel about that prospect. That's WAY different than the alcohol prohibition argument, and you know it.

RE: The War On Drugs...
By FITCamaro on 8/16/2012 7:23:48 AM , Rating: 2
You're incredibly naive if you think the war on drugs ends because marijuana becomes legal. There's still heroin, cocaine, PCP, LSD, ecstasy, meth, and anything else I can't think of. And there will still be illegal pot. As Reclaimer said, the government would try to regulate the sale and distribution of it to turn it into a revenue stream. So there would be a black market for it just like there is with cigarettes.

Honestly I'm a firm believer that two things need to happen with drug enforcement. One is the federal government ends its current role in drug enforcement. They stop unconstitutionally enforcing drug policy. Let the states determine what they want legal. Now most though would only want to make pot legal. I think few sane people will argue that all the rest of the drugs I listed should be outlawed. But after the government gives up its current self-endowed, illegitimate authority, I think the states should come together, decide which drugs they want to give the federal government the power to enforce policy on, and pass a constitutional amendment to give them the power to enforce it.

Even now though the federal government has the power to enforce our borders to stop anything illegal from crossing them. Be it people or drugs.

RE: The War On Drugs...
By Ammohunt on 8/16/2012 11:17:35 AM , Rating: 2
I could not agree more other than provide for a common defense the federal governments should stay out of states business.

RE: The War On Drugs...
By malcolmkyle on 8/16/2012 10:17:28 AM , Rating: 2
Mexico's gruesome civil war is clearly a product of the failed policy of Prohibition.

Alcohol Prohibition was a tremendous failure due to the incredible amount of crime and disorder it created. Human nature hasn't changed since the 1920s when the distribution of liquor was turned over to a whole new group of criminal entrepreneurs. Drug Prohibition has turned Mexico into a civil war zone. Dangerous mind altering substances are again being manufactured, smuggled and sold by criminals. Our intentions in prohibiting these substances may well be good but the result of our inability to recognize the futility of such an action will both deepen and prolong the agony caused by this extremely counter-productive and dangerous policy.

RE: The War On Drugs...
By Ammohunt on 8/16/2012 11:21:29 AM , Rating: 2
So with that logic every country that prohibits drugs should have open drug gang warfare in its streets? Don’t fool yourself Mexico’s prior societal/cultural problems allowed the cartels to do what they are doing now in Mexico.

RE: The War On Drugs...
By tamalero on 8/16/2012 11:28:44 AM , Rating: 2
yeah colombia too? Vietnam too? and every single country that makes a living by selling drugs, opiates and other stuff to the good 'ol 'Murrica?

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