As troops face a deadly escalation in roadside bombings, the U.S. military is responding with a new surveillance system featuring tethered, sensor-equipped blimps to protect forward operating bases by monitoring the ground below.
The unmanned airships, also called aerostats, are just one of the technologies the Pentagon is rushing to Afghanistan in the hopes of battling the rise in homemade bombs, which continue to be the top killer of U.S. and allied troops fighting the Taliban insurgency. In the Persistent Ground Surveillance System, these lighter-than-air vehicles are equipped with day and night cameras and combined with a ground control station.
Seven of the aerostats are already in-country, and 31 are expected to be in place by the end of the year, Ashton Carter, the Pentagon's chief weapons buyer, told reporters today at a demonstration of the system. "What you see here is one of the many new capabilities we are introducing into Afghanistan in association with the new surge effort this spring and summer," he said, as the white blimp floated above him.
Currently, the aerostats are equipped with an MX-15 sensor that provides day and night imagery, but more sensors might be added once they are up and flying in Afghanistan, Carter said. The airships will be operated by private contractors, rather than military personnel.
The technology itself is by no means new, as tethered aerostats are already used to monitor the U.S.-Mexican border for drug smuggling and other illegal incursions. But the blimps going to Afghanistan are smaller -- just 75 feet long and 25 feet in diameter -- and are designed to spot insurgents, particularly those who might be involved in planting improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
"Everyone would like their own Predator or Reaper," Carter said, referring to the popular unmanned aerial vehicles that are in notoriously high demand but short supply in Afghanistan. However, he added, the tethered aerostats are cheaper and can stay aloft for extended periods of time.
By providing 24-hour surveillance of an area around a base or a town where U.S. troops are located, "this is an example of an alternative that is just as effective," Carter said.