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Giant Unmanned Blimps Could Be Key To U.S. Defense

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  • NHNE
    NHNE News List Current Members: 753 Subscribe/unsubscribe/archive info at the bottom of this message. ... NOT SUCH AN INFLATED NOTION: THE PENTAGON BELIEVES
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 26 8:23 AM
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      By Peter Pae
      LA Times Staff Writer
      November 11, 2002


      It has been 65 years since the ill-fated Hindenburg burst into flames and
      deflated the chances that lighter-than-air ships would become anything more
      than a curious footnote in aviation history. Except for the limited use of
      the Goodyear blimp as a flying billboard, dozens of efforts to revive the
      glory of dirigibles have fallen flat.

      But now, Pentagon officials believe that airships could play a crucial role
      in protecting the United States from attack. They have quietly asked the
      country's largest defense contractors to develop giant unmanned craft -- two
      to three times as big as Goodyear's gasbag -- that would ring the continent.
      Hovering high in the stratosphere, beyond the reach of unfriendly forces,
      such blimps would be used to spot incoming enemy missiles and planes.

      The airships would be far more complicated than any built before, and it
      could take seven or eight years before they are deployed. But Pentagon and
      industry officials say technological advances, including highly efficient
      solar cells, make them optimistic that the giant blimps can be added to the
      U.S. arsenal.

      "We are very excited about high-altitude airships," Sue Payton, the
      Pentagon's deputy undersecretary for advanced systems and concepts, said in
      a recent briefing with industry executives, according to a transcript. She
      added that airships have become a high-priority technology demonstration
      program for the Pentagon.

      The effort gained momentum a couple of weeks ago when the Missile Defense
      Agency, charged with protecting the country from ballistic missiles,
      officially launched a competition to develop a high-altitude, helium-filled
      airship. It said such blimps should be capable of floating for months at an
      altitude of 70,000 feet, carrying more than 4,000 pounds of unspecified

      Defense contractors have until February to submit their designs, and the
      agency expects to award a contract in March to one or more winning firms to
      build a prototype airship within three years. The goal is to deploy an
      operational system by 2010.

      Pentagon officials are cagey about how the blimps would be used and how much
      they would cost, but several federal agencies also want to use the airships,
      including the White House Office of Homeland Security, a spokesman for the
      missile defense agency said.

      Since last year's terrorist attacks, homeland security officials have been
      stepping up calls for improving surveillance of suspected terrorists.

      At the recent industry briefing, Pentagon officials described one scenario
      in which at least 10 massive airships equipped with radar and other sensors
      would be used to track incoming ballistic and cruise missiles while also
      monitoring potential terrorist activities on the ground, according to people
      who attended the meeting.

      The airships would rim the U.S. coastline, starting from the Puget Sound
      area in the Northwest, down the Pacific coast and then up the Atlantic coast
      to Maine. Each airship could carry 40-foot rotating radars with a footprint
      of about 750 miles, according to a defense industry official.

      The airships, at least initially, would not carry weapons, although
      eventually they could be equipped with chemical lasers to shoot down
      ballistic missiles.

      "There are some challenges to overcome, but it just looks like a concept
      whose time has come," said Ron Browning, director of business development
      for Lockheed Martin Corp.'s Naval Electronics & Surveillance Systems unit,
      which has been working on a high-altitude airship for three years.

      Even longtime critics of missile defense systems are intrigued by the

      "I don't think that there is anything evidently preposterous about it," said
      John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a think tank. "While it may feel
      early 20th century, it would be wrong to suggest that the airship was
      completely discredited by the Hindenburg, which was a different airship in
      almost every respect than what you are seeing now."

      Other Pentagon agencies, including the Army and the Navy, are keenly
      interested in the next-generation airship for tactical uses, analysts said.
      The helium-filled contraptions could be deployed in conflicts overseas,
      monitoring enemy troop movements and even carrying laser designators to
      provide targeting information for cruise missiles and so-called smart bombs.
      At 70,000 feet, they would be too high for most antiaircraft missiles.

      At least 10 companies are expected to compete to build the airships,
      including the world's largest aerospace companies -- Lockheed Martin, Boeing
      Co. and Raytheon Corp. -- as well as smaller firms such as AeroVironment
      Inc. The pioneering Monrovia aircraft developer built the highest-flying
      unmanned, solar-powered airplane.

      Using airships for battle is nothing new, and in fact much of the last two
      centuries of developing lighter-than-air vehicles has focused on their use
      in surveillance and reconnaissance.

      Balloons were used as aerial observation posts during the Civil War, and
      Germans used rigid airships to drop bombs on England during World War I. Use
      of airships for transportation was hurt by the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, in
      which the hydrogen-filled German dirigible burst into flames while landing
      at Lakehurst, N.J., killing 35 people on board. Since then, airships have
      mainly used nonexplosive helium.

      For World War II history buffs, the idea of floating airships for defense is
      reminiscent of the hundreds of tethered blimps that hovered above London to
      obstruct German bombers and rockets. Locally, massive blimps regularly
      patrolled the coastline looking for Japanese submarines during the war. The
      region's blimp heritage still is visible at the defunct Tustin Marine Air
      Station, where two gigantic hangars that used to house them still tower over
      the Orange County horizon.

      And it wouldn't be the first time that the Pentagon has looked at airships
      for strategic purposes. In the 1950s, the Navy built four dirigibles to
      hover near the Arctic Circle watching for Soviet bombers. These were retired
      in 1962 after satellites and stronger ground-based radar systems took hold.

      Since the 1980s, the Air Force has operated 11 low-altitude aerostats --
      small, tethered blimps -- around the U.S.-Mexican border, mainly to spot
      low-flying aircraft used by drug smugglers. But these low-tech blimps are
      not nearly as sophisticated as what the Pentagon now envisions.

      The Pentagon's renewed interest in airships has been driven by developments
      in solar power and unmanned technologies that are opening the possibility of
      putting blimps in the stratosphere, a long-sought goal of engineers since
      the Wright brothers' first powered flight nearly a century ago.

      At 70,000 feet, the aircraft would be perched above the jet stream and
      adverse weather. Winds are calm enough that the airships could stay in
      geostationary positions, hovering over a specific site for months on end.
      They would need to come down only to replenish their helium, which over time
      would leak through the airships' skin.

      At that height, sensors that have been perfected for satellites would be as
      much as 50 times more sensitive than if they were in space, providing highly
      detailed images. Radar also would be able to spot low-flying aircraft and
      cruise missiles that may have escaped detection by ground-based systems.

      The biggest trick, perhaps, has been figuring out how to keep such airships
      aloft at 70,000 feet; the air at that altitude is so thin that most aircraft
      would have difficulty staying up. But this challenge is starting to be
      overcome, industry officials said. Lighter material for the skin, such as
      Kevlar, and other advances are bringing high-altitude airships closer to

      The airship envisioned by Lockheed, for one, would be controlled by four
      electric propellers. Lightweight solar cells could provide power to the
      giant blimp for months.

      Analyst Pike, who first saw the military experimenting with high-altitude
      balloons 30 years ago, said interest in airships has climbed and fallen with
      the nation's insecurities.

      "Since Sept. 11, you've got new requirements. And every time you've got a
      novel set of requirements, the whole technology gets a new look," Pike said,
      noting how the balloons he long ago witnessed led to a rash of calls about
      unidentified flying objects. Airships, he said, "sort of move in and out of


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