$14M+ for Blimps in Iraq
DefenseTech.org reports that the U.S. Marines are beginning to use aerostats (a.k.a. tethered blimps) as communications relays in Iraq. The Marine Airborne Re-Transmission Systems (MARTS), is a TCOM 32M Aerostat that will receive signals from ground forces and even pilots through a fiber-optic tether, then transmit messages up to 100 miles away via UHF and VHF radio frequencies. Its kevlar/mylar skin allows it to sustain minor small arms fire and remain afloat. One aerostat, first tested in February, is being deployed to Iraq, a second is being readied, and the Marines are scrounging up $14 million to buy four more.
MARTS is built by Columbia, MD’s TCOM LP, which built some of the border patrol blimps now posted to the Mexican border. The U.S. Army already has a pair of blimps operating as surveillance platforms in Iraq, and according to DefenseTech.org the Marine Corps is also looking at putting infrared and radar surveillance equipment on future generations of the MARTS blimps.
The current model is believed to be TCOM MP’s 32M or 38M, which would give the aerostat the ability to remain aloft in 50 knot winds and stay aloft for up to 2 weeks at a time. TCOM makes even larger models if required, with higher payload capacity; indeed, its 71M model was selected for the United States’ Cruise Missile Defense Program.
In terms of long term trends, it’s also worthy of note that a combination of narrowband satellites and MARTS-type systems for theater communications, wideband AEHF satellites for mission-critical high-bandwidth transfers like UAV video, and laid fiber-optic cables for strategic communications represents a potential “incremental competition” threat to the $12-18 billion TSAT program.