Time for TARS Along USA’s Southern Borders
An aerostat is a lighter-than-air craft that relies on a ground tether for movement and sometimes for electrical power as well, as opposed to blimps which are self-powered, free-flying craft. The US military has slowly come around to the benefits of aerostats in an era that requires persistent surveillance, but features high fuel prices.
The RAID program has morphed into the tower-centric GBOSS, and progress on the naval front remains slow, but the $1+ billion JLENS advanced aerial surveillance program is still moving ahead, and Lockheed Martin has delivered its PTDS aerostats to the front lines for ground surveillance duties. TARS is also part of this mix, with several firms participating in the program…
What is TARS?
TARS is a counter-drug program that’s currently funded by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Counter Narcotics, Counter Proliferation, and Global Threats. The US military has been using TARS aerostats since the 1980s, and before 1992, the TARS network was in the hands of the US Air Force, Customs Service and Coast Guard. A 1992 bill transferred management of the system to the Pentagon/Air Force.
Both USNORTHCOM and USSOUTHCOM undertake Counterdrug/ Counter-Narco Terrorism (CD/CNT) missions around the traditional drug-runner flight paths along the Mexican border, the Florida Straits, and the southwest Puerto Rico/ Caribbean regions, even using E-2 Hawkeye AWACS aircraft in the course of their duties. TARS will not replace other methods, but it will supplement them with an around-the-clock component. As a bonus, a radar with these detection capabilities can also notice items like low-flying cruise missiles, and so TARS is explicitly tasked with contributing to NORAD’s air defense as a secondary mission.
TARS consists of 4 major parts: the aerostat and airborne support equipment; the radar payload; the tether and winch system; and the ground systems.
The program uses 2 sizes of helium-filled aerostat made by TCOM or ILC Dover: one is 275,000 cubic feet in size (186′ long x 62.5′ in diameter x fin span 68.6′), while larger aerostats are 420,000 cubic feet (208.5′ x 69.5′ x 75.5′). The Teldar fabric hulls contain 2 chambers separated by a gas-tight fabric partition: the upper chamber is filled with helium, while the lower chamber is a pressurized air compartment with a sophisticated system of sensors, blowers and valves to control the air pressure. Either type can operate up to 15,000 feet, but 12,000 feet mean sea level is the norm.
Aerostat power is developed by an on-board, 400 Hz generator, fed by a 100-gallon diesel fuel tank. All systems, including the generator, are controlled via an aerostat telemetry link. A pressurized windscreen compartment underneath the aerostat contains and protects the radar, a Lockheed Martin L-88. It’s designed to filter out ground clutter and detect “low-level targets,” from low-flying aircraft to speedboats, and has a published detection radius of 200 miles. That will vary, of course, depending on aerostat altitude and the size/composition of the target.
Operators launch the TARS aerostat from a large circular launch pad containing a fixed or mobile mooring tower, depending on the site configuration. The mooring system contains a large winch with 25,000 feet of tether cable. All radar data is transmitted to the ground station, then digitized and fed to the various control centers for display. TARS sites also field a doppler weather radar, wind profiler, and ground weather station, which complement forecasts and weather warnings from the Air Force Weather Agency.
TARS’ contract management office is located in Newport News, VA, and the logistics hub is located in El Paso, TX Operational sites are listed as:
- Yuma, AZ
- Fort Huachuca, AZ
- Cudjoe Key, FL
- Deming, NM
- Lajas, Puerto Rico
- Marfa, TX
- Eagle Pass, TX
- Rio Grande City, TX
Aerostat maker ILC Dover is a Lockheed Martin STAR supplier, and TARS overall is touted as a Lockheed product. In 2000, Lockheed Martin Naval Electronics & Surveillance Systems-Akron won a USAF contract to upgrade 6 Tethered Aerostat Radar System sites.
ITT Systems Division is the TARS support integrator.
Note that the aerostat TARS systems should not be confused with BAE’s TARS reconnaissance pod, which also performs surveillance, but does so while attached to a fighter jet.
Contract & Key Events
Aug 31/11: ITT Systems Division of Colorado Springs, CO receives a $32.2 million firm-fixed-price contract modification to provide resources for the Tethered Aerostat Radar Systems Program at 9 locations throughout the United States. Air Combat Command AMIC/PKC in Newport News, VA manages the contract (FA4890-08-C-0005, PO 0055).
July 9/08: ITT Systems Division of Colorado Springs, CO received a $33.7 million fixed-price, cost-plus award fee with cost reimbursable line items contract for the Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS). ITT will operate, maintain, and support 8 operational TARS sites 24 hours a day/ 7 days per week, and also provide cradle-to-grave support for the entire TARS network. Operations will include depot level support, helium inflation and deflation of tethered aerostats, and supply chain management.
At this time $1.5 million has been obligated. Air Combat Command AMIC/PKC in Newport News, VA manages this contract (FA4890-08-C-0005). See also ITT release.