‘Virtual wall’ activating on Southwest border with military’s help, congressman says

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Pentagon to take over costly surveillance units on U.S.-Mexico border

LAREDO, Texas (Border Report) — U.S. Customs and Border Protection has asked the Pentagon to oversee the placement of reconnaissance blimps throughout the entire Southwest border beginning with every sector in Texas, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar told Border Report on Monday.

Cuellar, a Democrat from Laredo and vice chairman of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Committee, said that CBP has requested assistance from the U.S. military to deploy and monitor Tactical Aerostat Systems (TAS), as well as to provide additional aerial and ground support on the border with Mexico.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, vice chairman of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Committee speaks in Laredo, Texas, on the banks of the Rio Grande. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“DOD will also be providing aircraft and aerostats for each of the southern border sectors, which is good,” Cuellar said Monday from the banks of the Rio Grande overlooking Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. “The intent is to have it in every sector, which they don’t but they will have this now — a virtual wall.”

In addition, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security also has asked the military to provide aerial support and on-the-ground support in border regions, Cuellar said. This includes long-range persistent ground surveillance along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“You’ve got aerostats, aircraft that the Department of Defense will be working with Homeland and they will have some other officers to do mission support providing intelligence, surveillance,” Cuellar said.

Earlier this month, DHS announced it was terminating all border wall contracts in Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. But the Biden administration has maintained that regardless of border barriers, technology and a strong law enforcement presence are still necessary in order to combat illegal immigration, which this past year has been at an all-time high on the South Texas border.

A tethered aerostat is seen on Dec. 9, 2019, over City Hall of Rio Grande City, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

Aerostats have long been deployed in the Rio Grande Valley, where half a dozen of the multi-million-dollar devices had been positioned over the skies on any given day. But the exorbitant costs caused a drastic reduction in almost all of the devices last year over South Texas.

The program costs $30 million per year to operate six aerostats in South Texas. That’s $5 million per balloon per year, or roughly $416,000 per month to operate each blimp,

Cuellar had long criticized the hiring of private contractors — not U.S. Border Patrol agents — to operate the devices, most of which are U.S. Army surplus recycled after being used in Afghanistan.

The devices also have not been used in other border sectors, like El Paso or Del Rio, Texas, where 15,000 Haitians last month tried to come across from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico.

But Cuellar says this technology very soon will help to provide a virtual line of sight along the border from thousands of feet in the air.

This will enable law enforcement on the ground and in offices to better prepare and react to large groups attempting to come across.

“Those type of aerostats can cover miles,” said Cuellar, who would not disclose the specific types of aerostats to be deployed citing national security reasons.

An armored guard watches the base of the Del Rio International Bridge on Sept. 19, 2021 in South Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

During the surge of Haitians in September, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas asked for military support to quell what he called a “crisis” situation. That was the first time the agency confirmed it had asked the Pentagon for assistance in securing the nation’s border, according to the Washington Examiner.

Cuellar on Monday praised the Biden administration for following a border security path set under the Obama administration and former Homeland Secretary Jeh Johnson, whose administration was the first to deploy aerostats on the border in 2014. And he said it is necessary now more than ever as a caravan with thousands of mostly Haitian migrants is staged in Tapachula, Mexico, on the country’s southern border. The caravan has said it will depart on Oct. 23 for the United States, and most likely the South Texas border.

The military assistance will allow DOD to take over all of the operations of the aerostats from the U.S. Border Patrol. The agency had previously contracted with private aerostat monitoring companies to deploy the devices, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per month to operate.

In addition to the aerostats, CBP Air and Marine Operations Unit out of McAllen, Texas, is utilizing the C206 Night Owl aircraft “to support USBP efforts to detect, identify, classify, and track cross-border activity,” documents provided by Cuellar to Border Report show.

Border Report has reached out to the Department of Homeland Security to request more specific information on the deployment of aerostats and collaboration with the Department of Defense. This story will be updated if information is received.

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