Airships can defeat roadside bombers, says ex-US officer
'ILLEGAL foot-dragging by air force kills our troops'
An ex-US air force officer has said that unmanned spy airships capable of defeating terrorist/insurgent bombers could have been in service years ago, saving many lives among US and allied troops. He says that the technology was "illegally" sidelined by senior officers determined to preserve satellite and aircraft budgets.
Ed Herlik, formerly of the US air force space command and before that a pilot, said in a presentation last month that "persistent" unmanned lighter-than-air craft are the "holy grail" for which the US and allied militaries have been searching for so long - a realistic means of countering the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that have killed so many troops in recent years.
The idea is that a spy airship would lurk high (say 60,000 feet) above an area of interest, with close-to-vertical line of sight view of a large area beneath (the steep downward look is important, as people or things get hidden behind buildings, terrain etc once one is looking more from the side).
Most importantly, the spy dirigible would be monitoring the entire area all the time, not peering at just one part of it through a narrow-field "drinking straw view" sensor such as a normal electro-optical telescopic camera. The entire, huge, detailed picture would be recorded, so creating a record of every bomb-laying or ambush team as it left its home base or IED factory, travelled to the point of action and set up its trap.
No feasible analysis could pick this out of the picture as it was happening: but once the bomb went off or the ambush took place it would be a simple matter to reverse the tape back to the moment it was set up, and then backtrack the enemy to their lairs - perhaps even to their homes. Presto: every time a bomb goes off or a patrol is attacked, all the enemy personnel involved are bagged.
According to Herlik, this technology could have been in service years ago - but senior air force officers, despite having been ordered to sort it out, deliberately sidelined the idea. The DEW Line blog flags up the incendiary part of his remarks:
Why aren't we doing this?
Part of this is the cultural resistance to lighter than air vehicles. The air force for example has absolutely no interest in airships. It's just too far from what they choose to do...
The bottom line inhibitors are right here: Budgets and careers. As with any technical innovation the old technology will be replaced to some extent, and the losers always resist, especially those whose careers are based on whatever technology is going away.
Air force space command was assigned to this task by a chief of staff named Jumper* back in about 2003. Several years later the technology problems had been solved, to include survivability, which meant that the threat to satellite budgets was then crystal clear.
At that point, and just as that chief of staff retired, an air force general wrote a cease and desist order countermanding the chief of staff. Yes, that is illegal. But they did it anyway.
Shortly thereafter the space community jettisoned the entire idea of persistent UAVs, pushing it to the Air Combat Command, which again for cultural reasons rejected the lighter than air piece.
Army's planned "optionally manned" dirigible won't do, apparently
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.