Blimp networks guard troops

Army officials turned to towers and unmanned blimps equipped with networked sensors to help protect troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, service officials said this week.

The towers and unmanned blimps, called aerostats, worked so well at detecting and identifying enemy forces and objects that Defense Department officials want to buy more of them. "We wouldn't have gotten the funding if it wasn't successful," said Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson, director of Army systems management in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology.

Sorsenson spoke Oct. 7 at a Pentagon media briefing.

Army officials obtained $38 million in fiscal 2004 for 22 towers and aerostats for surveillance use in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 84-foot-towers and 15-meter aerostats use the Rapid Aerostat Initial Deployment (RAID) system to monitor the perimeter of the service's bases there, said Col. Kurt Heine, project manager of the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor, whose program oversees the force protection effort.

The RAID system consists of towers, aerostats, sensors and an operations center. The towers and aerostats carry an electro-optical and infrared sensor that detects enemy forces and objects at day or night. The sensors obtain the images then transmit them via a radio frequency to an operations center, which sends them via a network to warfighters and analysts for review and action, Heine said.

The towers and aerostats provide soldiers and commanders with a more persistent capability than most unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS) and manned aircraft because they do not require human operators, need less maintenance and fly longer. But they do not stand or fly as high as aircraft, Sorenson and Heine said.

They said towers, aerostats, UAVs blimps and aircraft each possess technology advantages and disadvantages. They said they give commanders options for many force protection missions.

Army officials experimented with a manned blimp equipped with the RAID system last week in Washington for homeland defense missions. They spent $500,000 to lease a blimp and an aircrew that conducted a 24-hour flight over the Pentagon for security and also supported a joint-force protection mission, Sorenson and Heine said.

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