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US to build $400-million spy blimp, says report


The image of the blimp is for illustration purpose only. Lockheed Martin

NEW YORK (BNS): The Pentagon is planning an eye in the sky to track enemy aircraft and troop movement on the ground. The Los Angeles Times reported that the US was planning to build a $ 400-million sophisticated ‘spy blimp’ that will float 65,000 feet above the Earth and help in monitoring whereabouts in troubled countries.

The 400-foot-long dirigible, in fact a cross between a satellite and a spy plane, would travel to any destination in 15 days; survey targets up to 375 miles away, and can remain airborne for ten years, the paper reported.

Chief Scientist for the US Air Force Werner JA Dahm was quoted as saying that it was absolutely revolutionary. “It is constant surveillance, uninterrupted. When you only have a short-time view, whether it is a few hours or a few days, that is not enough to put the picture together,” Dahm told the paper.

Under the leadership of US Defence Secretary Robert M Gates, the project ‘spy blimp’ reflects a shift in Pentagon planning and spending priorities. Earlier, Gates had urged the military services to improve intelligence as well as surveillance operations while cutting high-tech costs.

Military officials said that if the project was successful it could pave the way for a fleet of spy airships. The newspaper reported that it brings back to memory the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, in which 36 people lost their lives when that airship went up in flames in New Jersey.

It has been reported that the military has used less-sophisticated tethered blimps, called aerostats, to conduct surveillance around military bases in Iraq. But flying at 65,000 feet, the giant airship would be nearly impossible to see, beyond the range of any hand-held missile, and safe from most fighter planes, it said.

The paper also said that the range of the spy craft could operate at the distant edges of any military theater, probably out of the range of surface-to-air missiles as well.

The Air Force’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance abilities have improved dramatically in the last five years with the expansion of the Predator and other drones.
Although such craft can linger over an area for a long time, they do not watch constantly, the paper reported.

“Being able to observe threats and understand what is happening is really the game-changing piece here,” Dahm was quoted as saying by the Los Angeles times. He said that the dirigible will be filled with helium and powered by an innovative system that uses solar panels to recharge hydrogen fuel cells.

Jan Walker, a spokeswoman for the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Pentagon’s research arm, said that the things were not trivial and they were revolutionary.

The paper reported that the Air Force had signed an agreement with DARPA to develop a demonstration dirigible by 2014. The prototype will be a third as long as the planned surveillance craft -- known as ISIS, for Integrated Sensor Is the Structure, because the radar system will be built into the structure of the ship, it said.

The military says the craft is closer to a blimp than a zeppelin, which has a rigid external structure; officials usually call the project an airship. Blimps get their shape from helium gas pressure. The Los Angeles Times reported that Pentagon had not yet awarded a contract to build the prototype.

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