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…
DARPA’s ISIS program is developing a stratospheric airship with sensor antennas that will include a radar nearly as large as the airship. This would create a battlefield surveillance platform with extreme endurance, and equally extreme resolution for its air and battlefield scans via radar and other carried sensors. This project is associated with Lockheed’s High Altitude Airship program, which is intended to soar at over 65,000 feet for over 30 days at a time, and ISIS could even play a significant role in ballistic missile and cruise missile defense.
Like all DARPA projects, HAA and ISIS pushed the limits of technology, as they work to field a capability set that could revolutionize the US Air Force. If they succeed, these airships could serve as a future substitute for an array of platforms, from UAVs to high-end jets like the E-8 JSTARS and E-3 AWACS. Critical technology areas include low aerial-density advanced airship hull material, bonding systems that will keep the radar attached in a hostile environment, extremely low-power transmit-receive modules for the radars, and novel power systems for long-endurance stratospheric airship operation. HAA has become a US Army program, but ISIS remains with DARPA – for now.
In April 2006, “WALRUS Hunted to Extinction By Congress, DARPA?” dealt with the cancellation of DARPA’s WALRUS ultra-heavy lift program. WALRUS aimed to develop an airship that could lift between 250-500 tons, offering capacity that rivaled ship-borne options, but offered the benefits of transport all the way to the front without requiring ports and related infrastructure.
Now a private consortium sees similar needs and trends in key civilian sectors. A Canadian/American partnership that includes Boeing has set itself the public goal of building the commercial equivalent of DARPA’s desired demonstrator…
The need for affordable 24/7 surveillance of key areas like bases and geographic chokepoints is a key feature of both modern counterinsurgency, and domestic/ border security. In the USA, this has resulted in programs like Raytheon’s RAID/ GBOSS towers and aerostats, Lockheed Martin’s TARS aerostats along the southern border, and Lockheed Martin PTDS aerostats on the front lines. The same trend can be observed in places like Thailand and in Israel, whose experience has led to export orders in Mexico and India.
Mexico needs surveillance, and many of its key surveillance assets are coming from Israel. Its E-2C Hawkeye AWACS aircraft were bought used from the Israeli Air Force. A recent $25 million purchase from Elbit Systems added cheaper long-endurance aerial surveillance via Hermes 450 mid-tier UAVs, as well as hand-launched Skylark-I mini-UAVs for troops on the ground. Now Aeronautics Defense Systems of Yavneh, Israel will be selling Mexico’s federal police over $22 million worth of its Skystar 300 surveillance aerostats and small Orbiter UAVs.
These UAVs and aerostats will be needed. Mexico doesn’t make the headlines very often, but the country faces what counter-terrorist analyst John Robb has called a growing “open source insurgency” of narco-traffickers and some leftist groups. The violence associated with “The Cartel War” has reportedly claimed almost 8,000 lives in the last 2 years. It is starting to create ripples of concern in many American Hispanic communities, who still have considerable family ties in Mexico. It also appears to be prodding the Mexican government into belated force improvements, as the scope of the growing conflict becomes clearer.
Telford Aviation Inc. in Bangor, ME received a $26.4 million5 time and materials contract for “9 months of continued multi-sensor airborne reconnaissance surveillance system support.” Telford’s own site states that their available government services include system maintenance and system training on special mission equipment for ISR programs, as well as all operational support for a 30,000 cubic foot surveillance airship.
Work will be performed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is expected to be complete by Jan 31/09. One bid was solicited on March 11/08 by the CECOM Acquisition Center at Fort Monmouth, NJ (W15P7T-07-C-W009).
Militaries around the world are moving to modernize and transform themselves to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Our mission is to deliver a regular cross-section of relevant, on-target stories, news, and analysis that will help experts and interested laypeople alike stay up to speed on key military developments and issues. Stories are broken down by military category and presented as fast bullet points that orient you quickly, with accompanying links if you wish to pursue more in-depth treatments.
Some of This Month’s Targets of Opportunity Include: Aging aircraft; F-22; F-35; India’s big fighter contest; 2018 bomber; Next-gen gunships; Japan’s stealth aircraft; JCA – just confusing; Poseidon down under; Boeing’s invisibility man; Odd new satellite; unmanned fighters & swarms; Cell phones & Patriots; Huge IT contracts; DARPA’s Deep Green; Lots of MRAP; FCS spinouts; Fire Ball; Better body armor; Australia’s new fleet; Korea: us too!; Britain’s new carriers; US Navy’s new bills; Russia’s stealthy Stereguschiy; Remote firefighting; Coast Guard cutters; ADVENT of breakthrough jet engines; $1M wearable power prize; Sub-finding ‘shark’; UK’s Grand Challenge & flying saucers; Boeing’s new plane design; DARPA’s robot dog; New Russian nukes; Britain’s new maintenance concept works; Israel prepares; Counter-insurgency air needs; Export controls and their blowback; CSAR-X: rescue me!; And much, much more:
What’s driving this interest? Four things. One is persistence, in an era where constant surveillance + rapid precision strike creates a formidable military asset. A second is cost, especially in an era of rising fuel prices. A recent US NAVSEA release offers figures that starkly illustrate the gap in surveillance cost per hour between an aerostat and planes or UAVs: