A new generation of dirigibles promise to go where drones cannot
by NICK ANDERSON
Real-time battlefield imagery is one of the most costly and crucial functions provided to battlefield commanders. Networked sensors and vehicles residing in various levels of the earth’s atmosphere relay up-to-the-minute intelligence at extreme cost — particularly geospatial assets such as tasked satellites.
Agencies, services and individual missions compete for use of these precious resources and the force multiplication they provide. While drones have presented a relatively low-cost imagery option, they can only remain on station for a limited amount of time and face higher demand than supply.
The cost and demand signal for high quality geospatial intelligence endures through the conflicts in Iraq in Afghanistan. The contemporary structure of a multi-echelon sensor network — drones, planes and satellites working together — is designed to counter a near-peer threat and is excessively costly in many modern conflicts.
The military also regularly and wastefully conducts aerial imagery collection missions as if the airspace through which collection assets move was contested. This largely false operational assumption costs the taxpayer billions of dollars per year.
A potential solution to the budgetary woes and unmet demand for ISR assets could be fulfilled by the combination of a few low-cost technologies that have been available to the military for decades.
Along with drones, one of the only major additions to ISR collection networks since 9/11 is the aerostat — essentially a sensor-equipped dirigible tethered to a friendly patch of ground.
Aerostats have been in service with the U.S. military in varying capacities since 1980 and can carry payloads ranging from weather measurement and assessment equipment, to advanced camera and lensing packages.
Unfortunately, the aerostats used most by the Army are designed to operate at a very low altitude and are tethered and controlled by wire from the ground.
These platforms are vulnerable to small arms fire and cannot be controlled if they are accidentally disconnected from the ground — as demonstrated by the Oct. 28, 2015 loss of an Army JLENS aerostat at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.
There are better options. In 1999, Global Aerospace Corporation, through a NASA grant, invented the StratoSail Balloon Guidance System, or BGS, comprised of a balloon attached to a “sideways” wing hanging several kilometers blow.
Since wind speed varies at different altitudes, “this sideways lift force is used to drag the balloon across the wind,” according to a company description. “This allows the balloon to be maneuvered towards regions of interest and away from unfavorable conditions.”
When paired with an aerostat, the StratoSail BGS could keep an aerial imagery platform on a predictable trajectory for months at a time.
Solar sail aerostats can also carry advanced sensor “carriages” tailored to specific theaters of operations. Furthermore, the carriage can hold redundant capabilities, allowing a single aerostat to support multiple missions simultaneously.
When applied in s constellation, aerostat sensor coverage can extend across the theater and obfuscate the need for high-cost assets such as satellites, drones and manned aircraft.
The balloons float predictably in a low-earth orbit that is out of range of small arms fire, but above the path of standard aircraft that might be providing other vital functions such as close air support or troop transport. When ground troops need imagery of the battlefield, real time footage from on-station aerostats could be streamed directly to the field.
This combination of available technology would meet demand, save money and give troops a significant tactical advantage. Further, there’s potential applications for electronic warfare and other networked capabilities.
To be sure, any theater of operation that is under the persistent overwatch of an aerostat constellation would need people to monitor and maintain the vehicles, and retrieve the balloons when they come to ground — intentionally or otherwise.
But in the event that an aerostat has an unexpected descent, the sensor carriages could be equipped with an explosive charge to destroy any classified or sensitive systems. Alternately, their sensor packages could be relatively low-tech, largely camera-centric platforms, leaving more specialized missions to other aircraft.
The U.S. military faces budget cuts and an era of austerity after 13 years of war. Pentagon leaders are actively looking for creative methods of accomplishing necessary tasks at a much lower cost.
Programs such as Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s DIUx are looking to bridge the gap between boot-strapping entrepreneurs and the military’s traditional procurement process.
While the military is a standardized and methodological institution in many ways, it has proved itself to be dynamic when times call for it.
Thinking outside of the box to reduce costs and provide ground commanders the actionable intelligence they need is within reach with current technology — and at lower cost. For the time being, the Pentagon is holding its breath, waiting to see what the new administration will bring.
Nick Anderson is a PACOM War Planner at Headquarters Marine Corps. The views in this article are his own and do not represent those of the Marine Corps or the U.S. government.