July 21, 2005
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By Nathaniel R. Helms
After a 60-year hiatus, the U.S. Army is back in the balloon business.
So are the Marines.
Last used in World War II, the balloon has reappeared as a cost-effective surveillance platform in Iraq and the Global War on Terror, military officials say.
The Army recently announced the expansion of an ongoing, limited balloon program with the purchase of sixteen unmanned, helium-filled surveillance balloons. The $12 million program will provide hard-pressed soldiers fighting in Iraq with more spies in the sky against enemy fighters. The 17-meter-long "tactical aerostats" will complement three smaller balloons operating in northern Iraq for more than a year. Meanwhile, the Marine Corps is also buying two tethered "aerostats" – smaller cousins of the giant surveillance balloons that the U.S. government has deployed for years along America's borders.
A 15-meter Tactical Aerostat equipped with surveillance equipment sits tethered to its mobile launching trailer.
The Marines are getting the unmanned blimps to improve non-line-of-sight communications among ground units and between ground units and aircraft, according to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
The Marines' new balloon, called the Marine Airborne Re-Transmission Systems (MARTS), was developed by DARPA to fill a service need for non-line-of-sight communications. The first blimp is currently being deployed to Iraq but its exact location and delivery date are classified. In the meantime the Marine Corps is buying a second blimp, DARPA officials said. Each blimp, including the ground station, costs $3.5 million, officials said.
Currently the Army's three deployed 15-meter aerostats are operated by the 134th Signal Company, part of the 256th Brigade Combat Team, Louisiana Army National Guard, currently serving near Mosul in northern Iraq . Each balloon is crewed by three or four soldiers who actually launch and fly the vehicle. The aerostats are tethered to a launching platform and deployed to an altitude of almost 1,000 feet by a winch-operated reinforced fiber-optic cable that allows secure communications between the surveillance devices and the ground crew.
A separate team operates its surveillance systems and coordinates the distribution of intelligence data. A primary use of the system is to provide time-sensitive data to quick reaction forces on alert to strike the insurgents as soon as they are discovered, officials say.
According to a promotional video provided by TCOM, L.P. , the balloon's manufacturer, the new aerostats have increased the surveillance capabilities of area commanders out to 30 kilometers or more using infrared, thermal and optical surveillance devices.
"These systems are saving soldiers' lives," said Maj. Reid Vander Schaaf, a spokesman for the Army aerostat program office in Elizabeth City, N.C.
The first aerostats arrived in the Mosul area in June 2004, officials said. One is tethered at Camp Victory , a second at Mosul , and a third, operated by civilians, is at nearby Camp Slayer .
Although the Army's aerostats are only about two-thirds the size of a manned World War I surveillance balloon, and only have a load-bearing capacity of about 200 pounds this is sufficient to lift the high-tech spyware systems onboard, said TCOM, L.P. spokesman Stephan Silvoy at the company's Columbia, Md., headquarters.
The 17-meter balloons are the smallest members of a much larger system called the Joint Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS). JLENS was originally conceived to watch for low-flying cruise missiles and attack aircraft flying nape-of-the-earth profiles. Currently the U.S. and several friendly Middle Eastern countries have deployed TCOM's giant 71-meter aerostat , which operates at 15,000 feet and higher, Silvoy said.
In Iraq , the Army is employing mobilized National Guard soldiers to operate the balloons. One is Staff Sgt. Sarah Partlow, a 31L (wire and cable installer) from East Grand Forks , Minn. A JLENS team chief at Camp Victory , Iraq , Partlow said the balloons can be deployed in a few hours by only a handful of personnel.
"The balloons are tethered to truck transports, can be operated by as few as three or four soldiers or civilians and they can be inflated and launched within four hours," she recently told a reporter for Scimitar , the official newspaper of the Multi-National Force/Iraq command .
The balloons can remain in the air for as long as a week and are not immediately susceptible to small arms fire, Silvoy said. "They are very low pressure," he explained. "Two inches of pressure so it takes a long time for all the helium to escape – leak – out of the aerostat."
The Army has been in the balloon business several times in its 230-year history. Both the Union and Confederate armies used balloons for observation during the Civil War, marking the first time that balloons were used in the United States for reconnaissance. Thaddeus Lowe gained fame as the Union 's first "aeronaut." In time, the Union launched several more balloons that were used effectively.
The Confederate Army also formed a version of the Union 's balloon corps. In the spring of 1862, Capt. John Randolph Bryan supervised the building and deployment of the Confederate's only observation balloon. This consisted of a cotton envelope coated with varnish. Unlike the hydrogen-filled Union balloons, it was a "Montgolfiére" (named after its French inventor) – filled and lifted with hot air - because the Confederacy did not have the equipment for generating hydrogen in the field.
Today's aerostats are direct descendants of the "Caquot" observation balloons used in great numbers during World War I. Photo: U.S. Air Force Museum
Balloon design hadn't improved too much by the U.S. intervention in World War I nearly 60 years later. During the Great War, doughboys climbed into wicker baskets slung under highly inflammable hydrogen-filled balloons to keep an eye on the Germans across no-man's land. Both sides worked hard to shoot as many of them as possible out of the sky.
The observation balloon most frequently used by Americans on the Western Front in France during World War I was designed by French engineer, Lt. Albert Caquot. It measuring 92 feet long and 32 feet in diameter. It could stay aloft in winds as high as 70 mph, according to U.S. Air Force Museum historians. The Caquots' had enough lifting power for two observers and their equipment, which included a frequently useful parachute.
In good weather, the balloons could ascend to over 4,000 feet, allowing the observers to see as far as 40 miles away. During their months at the front, American balloon observers directed artillery fire at 316 targets such as troop concentrations and supply dumps; noted 11,856 enemy airplane sightings, 1,113 instances of military traffic on railroads and roads, and 400 artillery batteries, Army records show.
During World War II, the U.S. Army and other services maintained "barrage balloons," unmanned, tethered balloons that trailed a long steel cable to discourage enemy planes from making low-flying attacks. Although vital for protection against aerial marauders, barrage balloons were unglamorous and rarely noticed in the bigger scheme of things.
Not so today.
Silvoy said the Army's new balloons are already providing much-needed intelligence to the troops in Iraq battling foreign jihadists and former regime elements. Whether or not the Army intends to formally resurrect its long-defunct Balloon Corps is uncertain. But for the moment at least, the Army is back in the balloon business, proving once again that "what goes around comes around."
©2005 DefenseWatch.Contributing Editor Nathaniel R. "Nat" Helms is a Vietnam veteran, former police officer, long-time journalist and war correspondent living in Missouri . He is the author of two books, Numba One – Numba Ten and Journey Into Madness: A Hitchhiker's Account of the Bosnian Civil War, both available at www.ebooks-online.com . He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . Send Feedback responses to email@example.com . All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of Military.com.