The Tethered Aerostat Radar System, the program's official name, is funded by the Defense Department. But at least in the Florida Keys, the information gathered by the system is used mostly by the Coast Guard and other agencies trying to keep drugs out of the country, KeysNet.com reported.
In addition to Cudjoe Key, Fla., there are sites in Deming, N.M.; Morgan City, La.; Lajas, Puerto Rico; Fort Huachuca and Yuma, Ariz., and Eagle Pass, Marfa, Matagorda and Rio Grande City, Texas.
The Cudjoe Key blimp, nicknamed Fat Albert, has been a familiar sight in the Lower Keys since 1980.
"Its presence has a deterrent value to illicit trafficking here in the area," Coast Guard Commander Al Young, who heads operations in Key West, told US1Radio this week. "It also allows us here at the Coast Guard to maintain real-time visibility of air and surface resources that we may have and on occasion, we have used that information to vector assistance resources to find search objects."
Exelis Systems Corp., which operates the TARS system, said the radar will be shut down March 15. Then the company will begin the task of deflating the blimps and closing the sites.