Blimps Across America?

Update: Jane’s Defense actually published an interesting article on this topic shortly after this Techyum post.

I find this soldier-shot video of lighter-than-air surveillance platforms in Afghanistan strangely adorable. The ages of the participants notwithstanding, it comes across like a program on the high school TV station about what to expect when the Tigers square off against the Buccaneers this weekend at the big game. Only the big game here is counter-insurgency surveillance and, you know, death and stuff. I guess that’s a pretty big game.

I’ve been completely fascinated by lighter-than-air ships in combat ever since I found out, via 1915’s Tom Swift and His Aerial Warship, why you can’t fire a cannon from a zeppelin. (That’s a long story; just believe me. You can’t.)

The above video, along with last month’s widely reported use of a zeppelin to film whales and yesterday’s aerostat appearance at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, coupled with my innate paranoia, got me wondering whether the video capabilities offered by lighter-than-air craft used in war zones might lend themselves to domestic surveillance. After all, the Bush Administration listened in on people ordering pizza for half a decade. Are US Government blimps patrolling the skies of America, eyefucking my bald spot? Look, Obama, are you going to make me break out my Bush-era stylish foil headgear? Is it not enough that I’ve got Google Earth steamin’ up my tail — do I have worry about blimps?

The answer is yes and no — for practical purposes, almost entirely no. But read on for wacky blimp hijinx after the jump!

Inspired to search for aerostat articles by an article on about airships for surveillance in Afghanistan, I then found this one, which informs me that the US military intranet in Afghanistan carries live streaming video shot from said aerostats.

U.S. Army Photo via CNet.

An aerostat is a tethered blimp, with communications and power provided via cable from the ground. They’re similar to the unpowered “barrage balloons” hanging over London in World War II, which was the last time lighter-than-air vehicles were used en masse in war. Barrage balloons, however, do nothing more than interfere with bombing raids. These, apparently, provide streaming video from a height of fifteen hundred feet plus.

The advantages of blimps and aerostats are many. The power required to run one is much less than that needed for an airplane, so they’re efficient. The U.S. controls most of the world’s helium supply — just like in the Hindenburg years! — which is mostly found near Amarillo, Texas.

When it comes to combat operations, blimps won’t make you say Sacre bleu!, but they have their pluses. Aerostats are only minimally vulnerable to rifle fire; shot often enough, they’ll eventually have to come down for repairs, but they won’t pull a Hindenburg or anything. They’re considerably less vulnerable to ground fire than the competing technology, the US’s RAID surveillance towers. Iraq relies primarily on a tower system, while in Afghanistan, more aerostats are deployed. One aerostat manufacturer, Raytheon, has a cool video of JLENS aerostat operation at its site.

In case you’re wondering about that other American war zone, the US-Mexico border, right-wing US border-protection groups have long advocated using aerostats for US land-border surveillance to ensure that illegal aliens don’t cross into Texas, get driver’s licenses and take their kids to Chuck E. Cheese.

There was a bizarre wave of tinfoil-hattism among the Minuteman set, circa 2006, claiming alternately that US Customs and Border Protection was already using aerostats for border surveillance, or that they should be using aerostats, and were the worst kind of traitors for not doing so. This was 2006; nobody has seemed to give a damn since then.

That’s probably because the US-Mexico border is patrolled by MQ-9 Reapers. Has been since 2004. Originally a program to patrol the Texas-Mexico region, the UAV program was recently expanded to include the entire border. The General Atomics Reaper is a hunter-killer unmanned aerial combat vehicle. The CIA version has missiles. Hey, everybody — Thanksgiving road trip to TJ?

Anyway, according to the Air Force’s official site, USAF aerostats are radar stations, not video platforms. Customs and Border Protection does seem to use aerostats. An obscure reference buried in a testimony page on the Customs and Border Patrol site leads me to believe that aerostat-based radar stations are used for drug interdiction, but not to prevent illegal immigration (presumably unless they’re coming in by Cessna).

Which means (probably) that the blimps you see in incoherent 2006-era Minuteman videos like the one below are, in fact, used by the Air Force as radar stations and for weather monitoring:

Which is a huge relief. Now if I vacay in TJ, I just have to watch for drones. But then, I do that anyway.

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