Dept. of Homeland Sec. Brings War Blimps to the Mexican Border
August 15, 2012 6:11 PM
Effort to curb illegal immigration from America's southern neighbor heats up
They're no 192-foot
, 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 prefers the term "
" 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 [
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 "
" wide-area scanning sensor from
, 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,
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
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:
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 [
] 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
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 [
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 [
] 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 [
] 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 [
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
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."
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.
"It looks like the iPhone 4 might be their Vista, and I'm okay with that." -- Microsoft COO Kevin Turner
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