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According to Herlik, the Air Force's refusal to move on airships has left the US Army Space and Missile Defence Command as the only organisation interested - but he says the soldiers lack the cash to do the job properly.

As it happens, the Army has revealed plans to put a spy airship over Afghanistan - an "optionally manned" adaptation of the famous P-791 airlift demonstrator. But the planned Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) can't fly high enough to do any good above mountainous Afghanistan, according to Herlik. He recommends a strato-ship able to fly at 60,000 feet, not the relatively unambitious LEMV:

I'm afraid that, while the [LEMV] airships will function properly, they will fail. They won't climb above 20,000' with any useful payload; 15,000' will be far more common. But eastern Afghanistan (the part next to Pakistan) is above 6,500' with peaks well above 21,000'. And the weather is truly violent - death to an airship. Their terrain is significantly higher and more rugged than our Rockies while their weather is worse.

Strato-ships along the lines recommended by Herlik have been proposed by others: for instance US/German venture Sanswire-TAO intends to deploy "stratellite" tadpole spy- or comms-relay ships in coming years, though for now they are flying a less challenging medium-altitude job.

Quite apart from the carrying ship, there's another technical issue with the bomb-busting strato-surveillance idea. Sensors which continually watch a huge area in great detail are hard to build.

One working example is Ground Moving Target Indicator radar, which can track moving objects as small as a person across large areas - but this is normally used in conjunction with camera systems as it sees small people-sized objects only as blips. This would probably not be enough detail to reliably backtrack from a bomb explosion.

The ARGUS-IS multiplex spyeye system is supposed to be in tests now, but it doesn't cover all the footprint all the time: it merely offers a large number of drinking straws to peer through, as opposed to just one. You still have to decide where to point the straws, however, which can't be done ahead of time. The same is true of the "Gorgon Stare" spy payload.

Even once you have the ability to record a whole region in full continuous detail, there could be serious bandwidth and/or storage issues.

However, Herlik says that "long-established technology" is already available for this part of the problem - and given his background he may know more than is public. A persistent high-altitude carrying platform is "the only missing piece, and has been for many years," he says.

That's an argument which will go down well among airship fanciers, at any rate. Soldiers worldwide, too, will probably be sympathetic to the idea that air forces in general tend to care much more about having sexy planes and jets than about actually helping fight the battle on the ground. ®

*Presumably General John Jumper, head of the US air force from 2001 to 2005.

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