At the height of the insurgency in Iraq, Ed Herlik was working on an idea that he thought could solve the problem of roadside bombs – head into “near space”. The scheme involved putting a giant airship with sensitive surveillance equipment at a height of 18,000m (60,000ft) above the ground, allowing it to capture a 20km- (13-mile) radius birds-eye view of Baghdad.
The video might not stop someone from planting a bomb, the thinking went, but after the bomb went off (or perhaps found before it went off), the US military could use “backtracking,” or the ability to track where the bomber came from, and dismantle the bomb-making network. “Whatever happens would leave a video record that you can play backwards,” says Herlik. “You can play the video backwards and forwards, and know everything about everybody.”
The idea of putting unmanned systems that would fly in near space for months on end was being championed by the Air Force chief of staff, but Herlik’s work on an omniscient near-space airship never came to fruition. His group was disbanded in 2005 when the Air Force leadership changed hands. But interest in lighter-than-air vehicles— from rigid airships and soft blimps, to tethered balloons and hybrid balloon-kites—remains strong in the military. Aerostats can be seen today flying over the US border with Mexico, along Israel’s turbulent border with Gaza, and even in central Kabul, where the US military keeps a watchful eye on possible Taliban activity.
Dirigibles and blimps have an almost retro charm to them that have long captured the hearts and imagination of aviation enthusiasts; in fact, lighter-than-air vehicles for surveillance is hardly new: Military balloons were used for surveillance in the American civil war, and the British and Germans both employed airships in World War I (airship nostalgia also has a dystopian association, best exemplified in the movie Bladerunner, where blimps urged people to go to the “off-world” colonies).
But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have given rise to a new renaissance of lighter-than-air-vehicles, and hundreds of aerostats have been sent to Afghanistan to help protect forward operating bases, while the US military is also funding more exotic propulsion-based airships for future use.
All lighter-than-air vehicles – whether airships, blimps or balloons – work on the same principle: gas, whether helium or hot air, is used to provide lift. Then, once you have something that floats you can sling any number of components underneath, such as cameras for surveillance. While some lighter-than-air vehicles, like tethered aerostats, are free-floating, others, like blimps and airships, can be propelled and steered.
The basic idea behind such vehicles is appealing to the military: rather than using unmanned aircraft to conduct surveillance, which can be costly and have limited endurance, they could employ airships, or tethered aerostats, which can stay aloft much longer—weeks or even months—and do so at a fraction of the cost, at least in theory. Even beyond surveillance, the Pentagon has also looked at airships for moving cargo.
Aerostats, with their large visible bodies, also offer the potential to intimidate enemies, argue advocates. “It’s tough to hide a large aerostat, over 100 feet long,” says Ron Browning, a business development manager for Lockheed Martin, which makes the Persistent Threat Detection System, a tethered aerostat that is flown over forward operating bases in Afghanistan.
Browning says Lockheed has even received anecdotal data from the US military that near one US base in Afghanistan, villagers would allow children to go out only when the aerostat was flying, believing it provided safety from the Taliban. “It has a visual deterrence effect,” says Browning. “When the bad guys sees the airship is up, they are not sure what it can it do, but they think if they can see it, it can see them.”