Blimps Over Capitol: Just Hot Air?

Blimps Over Capitol: Just Hot Air?

By Hannah Hess, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Coming soon to a Capitol skyline near you: giant blimps at 10,000 feet?

The woman at the helm of the House Administration Committee thinks the Capitol needs eyes in the sky, after authorities failed to detect Florida mailman Douglas Hughes’ April 15 gyrocopter flight.

Chairwoman Candice S. Miller, R-Mich., visited U.S. Customs and Border Patrol ground stations along the Southern border in January and was amazed at the clarity of the Tethered Aerostat Radar System, or TARS. She is suggesting the “sophisticated technology” might suit the Capitol.

That would mean giant blimps stretching along the Washington, D.C., skyline at around 10,000 feet. Deployed by federal law enforcement, the aerostats contain 2,000-pound radars in their bellies, capable of detecting aircraft at a range of 200 miles.

“They’re going to be using drones to deliver your taco here pretty soon,” Miller said during a May 20 hearing featuring Capitol Police Chief Kim C. Dine. She suggested the department might be able to get “surplus stuff” from the Department of Defense. “I mean, this is what’s coming, so how can you be able to assess using technology that’s available, as quickly as you can?”

Other lawmakers take the suggestion of jumbo aeronautic balloons seriously, pointing to Hughes’ flight as justification for investing more money into surveillance of Washington’s skies.

Both Republicans and Democrats have been “very clear” to federal law enforcement authorities that they want “anybody who has anything to do with airspace to avail themselves to the most sophisticated technology,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

“We’re going to hold their feet to the fire. I think they are doing the best they can, but I think what this has shown is it shows you where you’re vulnerable,” Cummings continued. “There are always copycats.”

Hughes will be back in D.C. court on June 22, facing two felony charges and four misdemeanors. He told reporters last week he believes if his flight exposed any security risks, they have been fixed.

“Nobody else could do what I did and get away (with it) without, at best, being forced down, (and) at worst, being shot down, and I highly recommend nobody try it,” he said outside the courthouse last week, after being charged.

Cummings said if Congress does not “take advantage of seeing what our problems may be and filling those holes, then shame on us.” He urged “urgency.”

Giant white radar-equipped airships already monitor the sky near Baltimore. The blimps, launched in December, cover a 340-mile range stretching south to North Carolina and north to the suburbs of Boston. It seems Congress might be willing to cough up the funds for similar technology more central to the Capitol. The House recently approved $369 million for the Capitol Police Department’s fiscal 2016 budget.

Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., who serves as vice chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that controls Capitol Police funding, told CQ Roll Call “eyes above the sky” would “be received with an open mind.”

“It will just be a matter of time before somebody’s got a drone flying around here,” Amodei said. “What are you going to do with drones to make your stuff more effective, more efficient? It’s present technology so we probably need to start figuring out how you’re going to use it and defend against it.”

Miller’s logic is similar. “Drones are just an exploding technology,” she said in a follow-up interview, citing Amazon’s proposed delivery service, as well as agricultural drones. “You’re not putting the toothpaste back in the tube — it’s coming. So, for all the good things that they can do, there’s also a security risk.”

As for the aesthetics of adding big, white blimps to one of the world’s most iconic skylines, Miller suggested there are some types that would fly at higher elevations and be less visible.

“They’re not huge blimps,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who supports adding more aerial surveillance. “You could do a number of things that are not visually unappealing to our visitors and yet still provide the vehicle to have additional eyes on the Mall.”

“For us, it’s really about making sure that visual monitors that all our (Department of Homeland Security) has, that we have the proper funding and the proper resources for them to make more strategic decisions — whether it be Capitol Police or DHS or anybody else,” said Meadows, who chairs an Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee with jurisdiction over D.C. affairs.

Capitol Police have been looking into the technology, Dine said last week, in response to Miller’s question. “We actually had a briefing this morning and we look forward to briefing you in a confidential setting about some of the things that we’re looking at,” he said. Dine suggested Hughes’ flight exposed another “gap” that needs to be closed.

“Once the vehicle is identified, then what do you do about it?” he asked rhetorically. “But clearly the earlier we know about it and the earlier we can identify it, the better we can make decisions about evacuations — which is a big part of how we use our systems now — and whether any use of force either by us, or DOD … is appropriate. So you’re right, early identification is critical.”

Those who support Hughes’ cause think Congress is overreacting. The dozen or so supporters who turned out to the courthouse last week suggested Hughes is a hero, who had to go to such drastic measures to highlight the need for changing the campaign finance system.

“It wasn’t a violent act, for him to put his own life at risk in order to bring attention to something that has been going on for two decades in this country, and just continues to get worse,” Sergei Kostin said in an interview after Hughes’ brief hearing. Kostin joined CodePink protesters in the rear rows of the courtroom.

“Where was the security risk? What did he do really that was that violent in any way or that made the government that uneasy?” Kostin asked. “It was a little gyrocopter. I don’t think that’s necessary cause for the alarm that they are bringing attention to. I think that’s more a distraction.”

Image: Graphic showing how a Tethered Aerostat Radar System works. Source of information: U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Graphic is schematic, not to scale (Graphic: Greg Good/TNS)

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