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This article was Originally Published on Apr 19, 2006 in Volume: 5  Issue: 1

Surveillance From the Stratosphere

High-altitude airships could provide a host of surveillance and intelligence advantages. But policy makers have yet to put serious resources behind the concept. Still, some companies have jumped into the market on their own with early research and development.

By Peter A. Buxbaum

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Lighter-than-air vehicles are perhaps best known for their presence at major U.S. sporting events, where they play a primarily advertising role. But they also provide a bird’s-eye view of the playing field to television audiences.

The same attributes could make airships, also known as blimps, useful for military operations in Iraq, or in other similar theaters, for a number of reasons. With U.S. forces battling insurgents in urban areas, airships could arguably provide persistent surveillance more efficiently and effectively than unmanned air vehicles, such as the Global Hawk, or even satellites. And because the insurgents pose no challenge to U.S. air supremacy, airships, particularly if they are maintained at high altitudes, would be impervious to the small-arms fire that the insurgents could offer. Airships could also serve as surrogates for satellites to provide enhanced in-theater bandwidth until the Transformation Satellite Communications (TSAT) constellation is deployed.

Although the use of airships has captured the imagination of some military thinkers, their extensive use is still some years away. Technical challenges must still be overcome, and Congress has a spotty record when it comes to funding airship programs. Still, some companies have jumped into the market on their own with early research and development efforts.

The basic proposition for the use of airships revolves around their cost-effectiveness and flexibility. “The use of fixed and rotary wing platforms to provide 24/7 surveillance is not cost-effective in terms of equipment and manpower,” said Stephen Makrinos, chief scientist at CACI Technologies Inc. in Eatontown, N.J. “Satellites also cannot fulfill the complete requirement due to limitations on payload, coverage [and] the ability to make rapid changes based on a constantly evolving threat.”

“Introduction of airships in a theater battlespace could considerably improve force performance with enhanced communication and surveillance capabilities,” said Isaac Porche, an information scientist at RAND Corp. “Airships can function as surrogate satellites but offer the advantages over satellites of shorter transmission distances for relaying ground-based communications and shorter ranges for sensor surveillance of the battlefield and acquisition of ground targets.”

Airships could potentially provide communications capabilities for the Warfighter Information Network–Tactical (WIN-T) network at less expense than satellites, according to Porche. “A high-altitude airship communications platform could be a strong addition to the Multi-Sensor Command and Control Constellation,” he said. “Persistent surveillance from a fixed position is an important need that airships can meet. Over time, they can facilitate continuous collection and comparison analysis of terrain covered by different sensors, such as infrared, electro-optical and hyper-spectral imagery. Comparisons can highlight changes, such as freshly turned dirt along a roadway where bombs have been emplaced, and the fusion of data from multiple sensors may furnish tracking data on targets under foliage.”

Furthermore, Porche noted, the TSAT satellite constellation, designed to provide the military with its enhanced theater bandwidth requirements, will not be available for some time. “The first TSAT bird will not be launched until 2014, and the constellation will not in place until well after that,” he said. “The question is, ‘What do you do in the meantime?’ High-altitude airships are being considered as an optional surrogate, which could be even more cost-effective if proved technically feasible.”

MDA’s high-altitude airship

The Missile Defense Agency is sponsoring an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration to investigate the feasibility of a high-altitude airship, or HAA. The vehicle would provide over-the-horizon surveillance from altitudes of up to 70,000 feet and could stay aloft for a month at a time. After funding the HAA for three years, Congress zeroed the program out in the fiscal year 2005 budget, only to reinstate some funding for 2006. MDA’s current HAA is a scaled-down version of the original.

One of the technical challenges posed by HAA revolves around the infrastructure and crews required to operate them. “They are somewhat restricted as to utility because these big pressurized bags take eight people to take off and land,” noted Fred Edworthy, vice president and general manager of Worldwide Aeros Corp. in Tarzana, Cal. “Also, you need a base designed to handle these craft, and there are none in Iraq right now.”

“Getting up and getting down are two challenging issues,” Porche agreed. “You need a base for takeoffs and landings where the weather is not too bad.”

High-altitude airships could be deployed from the continental United States, but that won’t help combatant commanders who may wish to deploy HAAs as soon as possible in a crisis situation. “It’s going to take eight to ten days to get to the theater,“ said Porche. “But once it’s there, it can stay for months.” By contrast, he noted, UAVs are most vulnerable during take off and landing and they can’t loiter over a specific area for any length of time.

In addition, not enough is known about how the vehicles would fare at very high altitudes of fifty-thousand feet or better. “There are some real technical issues involving this,“ Porche said. “There could be problems with the airship’s skin, and there could be operational problems. I’m not saying it’s infeasible, but if the military is serious about the HAA, it had better put some manpower and some money on it now.”

Tackling the infrastructure problem

“Our technology roadmap shows that it is feasible,” Edworthy said. Worldwide Aeros worked on the first two phases of MDA’s HAA program before the program was rescinded. (A third-phase contract was later awarded to Lockheed Martin.)

Edworthy noted that MDA’s current HAA concept is a scaled-down version of the original vision. “The original concept of HAA could have been oversold on simplicity,“ he said. “Once we went through the first two phases, a lot of technical issues were presented. The original RFP called for an airship that could carry a 40,000 pound payload and stay aloft for a year. Now they’re looking at a 5,000 pound payload and one month of deployment time.“

Despite the fact that Worldwide Aeros has no government contract, it has continued to work on its own version of a high-altitude airship, known as the GR-2, although with an important modifications that address infrastructure issues. “The project grew out of the need for a smaller HAA that could be deployed from anywhere in the world,“ Edworthy said. “The Lockheed version is a large craft that is predicated on using the air dock in Akron, Ohio.“ The Akron air dock is a huge hangar built for rigid dirigibles in the 1930s. There are only three such facilities in the United States and only five or six around the world, according to Edworthy.

“Our GR-2 concept has been looked at by several military agencies and is predicated on being able to be deployed anywhere globally by getting around the ground handling problems of the larger airships,” Edworthy said. “It could be assembled and flown out of anywhere that surveillance is required.” The GR-2 is designed to remain on station for 30 to 40 days.

Lower altitude alternatives

Another company, Moyock, N.C.-based Blackwater USA, which provides security services to the U.S. military and government, is also working on an airship on spec. The company’s initial focus will be the development and deployment of small remotely piloted airship vehicles that can operate from 5,000 to 15,000 feet, move, hover and stay aloft for up to four days, according to Chris Taylor, the company’s vice president for strategic initiatives.

“The airships will be equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance and detection equipment that can detect, record and communicate in real time to friendly forces the movement and activities of terrorists,” Taylor said. “We envision the airship being deployed in trouble spots like Route Irish in Baghdad between the airport and the international zone. It can pass real-time data to a regional operations center to detect and pinpoint incursions and [allow] resources to be deployed against it more efficiently and effectively.” Taylor also sees the Blackwater airship being deployed in homeland-security applications such as border patrolling.

Blackwater’s impetus to get involved in the airship business came from the security services it provides the U.S. military in Baghdad. “We make runs from Baghdad airport to the international zone constantly. It’s the most dangerous road in the world,” Taylor said. “We need some way to ensure that we can preempt any sort of attack.

“Our business lines are all cross platform,” he continued. “We like to go to other business lines that support our other business units.”

Blackwater plans to have an operational version of its airship up and running by September 2006, after which it plans on inviting policymakers for a look see . “We’ll demonstrate scenarios under which we believe airships would provide the perfect solution,” Taylor said.

Providing intelligence services

CACI Technologies Inc. has entered into a strategic alliance with HAA developer Auxilia Inc. of Albany, N.Y., to integrate sensors into the airship platform. CACI’s concept emphasizes developing the capability to provide surveillance intelligence services to government agencies.

“In my opinion, intelligence will be provided as a commodity 10 or 15 years from now,” said CACI’s Stephen Makrinos. “Many military and civil homeland security agencies have requirements for intelligence gathering, and it makes sense for someone to provide that service.”

CACI’s ultimate quest is to discover the intelligence needs of multiple agencies and to deploy HAAs to gather and disseminate the required information to subscribing agencies. “Right now you have 32 homeland security agencies, many with their own sources, methods and radar platforms,“ Makrinos explained. “They spend a great deal of money operating and upgrading that equipment, but they have problems sharing information because of interoperability and jurisdictional issues.”

Under CACI’s concept a single platform could gather intelligence for both the Coast Guard and the Federal Aviation Administration. “The Coast Guard has a requirement for tracking ocean vessels three days out and the FAA tracks aircraft within 300 miles of U.S. borders,” Makrinos explained. “If we can design a system that can do both, we could provide the same service to two different agencies at reduced costs.”

An integrated HAA platform

The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency is also working on an integration concept, one which seeks to reduce airship power and mass by tightly integrating the airship with its transmission antenna. The project, known as ISIS, “is investigating integrating very large antennas into airships,” Edworthy said. Worldwide Aeros is working on ISIS as a Northrop Grumman subcontractor.

Like the MDA’s HAA, ISIS seeks to develop an airship that can hover at a 70,000-foot altitude and that can persistently track targets at long ranges for an entire year. “A single ISIS system will be both sensor and airship,” noted a DARPA document.

The system’s antenna will be nearly as large as the airship itself, allowing for reduced transmit power and simplification of onboard power and cooling systems. This feature presents integration challenges because the platform and the payload cannot be developed separately, but the same integration would also dramatically reduce the total mass of the vehicle. Whereas MDA’s HAA payload would constitute 1.7 percent of total system mass, the ISIS payload will equal 30 percent to 40 percent of the total.

As things stand now, however, ISIS will not be ready for flight until 2011. That timeline could also be jeopardized unless policymakers and Congressional appropriators make the strategic decision to deploy airships and put the necessary resources behind that decision.

“The bottom line is that a decision has to be made about whether they are going to have them or not,” said RAND‘s Isaac Porche. “Then it’s time to tackle the engineering challenges.”

Airships could potentially provide communications capabilities for the Warfighter Information Network–Tactical (WIN-T) network at less expense than satellites, according to Porche. “A high-altitude airship communications platform could be a strong addition to the Multi-Sensor Command and Control Constellation,” he said. “Persistent surveillance from a fixed position is an important need that airships can meet. Over time, they can facilitate continuous collection and comparison analysis of terrain covered by different sensors, such as infrared, electro-optical and hyper-spectral imagery. Comparisons can highlight changes, such as freshly turned dirt along a roadway where bombs have been emplaced, and the fusion of data from multiple sensors may furnish tracking data on targets under foliage.”

Furthermore, Porche noted, the TSAT satellite constellation, designed to provide the military with its enhanced theater bandwidth requirements, will not be available for some time. “The first TSAT bird will not be launched until 2014, and the constellation will not in place until well after that,” he said. “The question is, ‘What do you do in the meantime?’ High-altitude airships are being considered as an optional surrogate, which could be even more cost-effective if proved technically feasible.”

MDA’s high-altitude airship

The Missile Defense Agency is sponsoring an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration to investigate the feasibility of a high-altitude airship, or HAA. The vehicle would provide over-the-horizon surveillance from altitudes of up to 70,000 feet and could stay aloft for a month at a time. After funding the HAA for three years, Congress zeroed the program out in the fiscal year 2005 budget, only to reinstate some funding for 2006. MDA’s current HAA is a scaled-down version of the original.

One of the technical challenges posed by HAA revolves around the infrastructure and crews required to operate them. “They are somewhat restricted as to utility because these big pressurized bags take eight people to take off and land,” noted Fred Edworthy, vice president and general manager of Worldwide Aeros Corp. in Tarzana, Cal. “Also, you need a base designed to handle these craft, and there are none in Iraq right now.”

“Getting up and getting down are two challenging issues,” Porche agreed. “You need a base for takeoffs and landings where the weather is not too bad.”

High-altitude airships could be deployed from the continental United States, but that won’t help combatant commanders who may wish to deploy HAAs as soon as possible in a crisis situation. “It’s going to take eight to ten days to get to the theater,“ said Porche. “But once it’s there, it can stay for months.” By contrast, he noted, UAVs are most vulnerable during take off and landing and they can’t loiter over a specific area for any length of time.

In addition, not enough is known about how the vehicles would fare at very high altitudes of fifty-thousand feet or better. “There are some real technical issues involving this,“ Porche said. “There could be problems with the airship’s skin, and there could be operational problems. I’m not saying it’s infeasible, but if the military is serious about the HAA, it had better put some manpower and some money on it now.”

Tackling the infrastructure problem

“Our technology roadmap shows that it is feasible,” Edworthy said. Worldwide Aeros worked on the first two phases of MDA’s HAA program before the program was rescinded. (A third-phase contract was later awarded to Lockheed Martin.)

Edworthy noted that MDA’s current HAA concept is a scaled-down version of the original vision. “The original concept of HAA could have been oversold on simplicity,“ he said. “Once we went through the first two phases, a lot of technical issues were presented. The original RFP called for an airship that could carry a 40,000 pound payload and stay aloft for a year. Now they’re looking at a 5,000 pound payload and one month of deployment time.“

Despite the fact that Worldwide Aeros has no government contract, it has continued to work on its own version of a high-altitude airship, known as the GR-2, although with an important modifications that address infrastructure issues. “The project grew out of the need for a smaller HAA that could be deployed from anywhere in the world,“ Edworthy said. “The Lockheed version is a large craft that is predicated on using the air dock in Akron, Ohio.“ The Akron air dock is a huge hangar built for rigid dirigibles in the 1930s. There are only three such facilities in the United States and only five or six around the world, according to Edworthy.

“Our GR-2 concept has been looked at by several military agencies and is predicated on being able to be deployed anywhere globally by getting around the ground handling problems of the larger airships,” Edworthy said. “It could be assembled and flown out of anywhere that surveillance is required.” The GR-2 is designed to remain on station for 30 to 40 days.

Lower altitude alternatives

Another company, Moyock, N.C.-based Blackwater USA, which provides security services to the U.S. military and government, is also working on an airship on spec. The company’s initial focus will be the development and deployment of small remotely piloted airship vehicles that can operate from 5,000 to 15,000 feet, move, hover and stay aloft for up to four days, according to Chris Taylor, the company’s vice president for strategic initiatives.

“The airships will be equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance and detection equipment that can detect, record and communicate in real time to friendly forces the movement and activities of terrorists,” Taylor said. “We envision the airship being deployed in trouble spots like Route Irish in Baghdad between the airport and the international zone. It can pass real-time data to a regional operations center to detect and pinpoint incursions and [allow] resources to be deployed against it more efficiently and effectively.” Taylor also sees the Blackwater airship being deployed in homeland-security applications such as border patrolling.

Blackwater’s impetus to get involved in the airship business came from the security services it provides the U.S. military in Baghdad. “We make runs from Baghdad airport to the international zone constantly. It’s the most dangerous road in the world,” Taylor said. “We need some way to ensure that we can preempt any sort of attack.

“Our business lines are all cross platform,” he continued. “We like to go to other business lines that support our other business units.”

Blackwater plans to have an operational version of its airship up and running by September 2006, after which it plans on inviting policymakers for a look see . “We’ll demonstrate scenarios under which we believe airships would provide the perfect solution,” Taylor said.

Providing intelligence services

CACI Technologies Inc. has entered into a strategic alliance with HAA developer Auxilia Inc. of Albany, N.Y., to integrate sensors into the airship platform. CACI’s concept emphasizes developing the capability to provide surveillance intelligence services to government agencies.

“In my opinion, intelligence will be provided as a commodity 10 or 15 years from now,” said CACI’s Stephen Makrinos. “Many military and civil homeland security agencies have requirements for intelligence gathering, and it makes sense for someone to provide that service.”

CACI’s ultimate quest is to discover the intelligence needs of multiple agencies and to deploy HAAs to gather and disseminate the required information to subscribing agencies. “Right now you have 32 homeland security agencies, many with their own sources, methods and radar platforms,“ Makrinos explained. “They spend a great deal of money operating and upgrading that equipment, but they have problems sharing information because of interoperability and jurisdictional issues.”

Under CACI’s concept a single platform could gather intelligence for both the Coast Guard and the Federal Aviation Administration. “The Coast Guard has a requirement for tracking ocean vessels three days out and the FAA tracks aircraft within 300 miles of U.S. borders,” Makrinos explained. “If we can design a system that can do both, we could provide the same service to two different agencies at reduced costs.”

An integrated HAA platform

The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency is also working on an integration concept, one which seeks to reduce airship power and mass by tightly integrating the airship with its transmission antenna. The project, known as ISIS, “is investigating integrating very large antennas into airships,” Edworthy said. Worldwide Aeros is working on ISIS as a Northrop Grumman subcontractor.

Like the MDA’s HAA, ISIS seeks to develop an airship that can hover at a 70,000-foot altitude and that can persistently track targets at long ranges for an entire year. “A single ISIS system will be both sensor and airship,” noted a DARPA document.

The system’s antenna will be nearly as large as the airship itself, allowing for reduced transmit power and simplification of onboard power and cooling systems. This feature presents integration challenges because the platform and the payload cannot be developed separately, but the same integration would also dramatically reduce the total mass of the vehicle. Whereas MDA’s HAA payload would constitute 1.7 percent of total system mass, the ISIS payload will equal 30 percent to 40 percent of the total.

As things stand now, however, ISIS will not be ready for flight until 2011. That timeline could also be jeopardized unless policymakers and Congressional appropriators make the strategic decision to deploy airships and put the necessary resources behind that decision.

“The bottom line is that a decision has to be made about whether they are going to have them or not,” said RAND‘s Isaac Porche. “Then it’s time to tackle the engineering challenges.”



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