WASHINGTON – The Pentagon said Thursday that it intends to spend $400 million to develop a giant dirigible that will float 65,000 feet above the Earth for 10 years, providing unblinking and intricate radar surveillance of the vehicles, planes and even people below.
“It is absolutely revolutionary,” Werner J.A. Dahm, chief scientist for the Air Force, said of the proposed unmanned airship – describing it as a cross between a satellite and a spy plane.
The 450-foot-long craft would give the U.S. military a better understanding of an adversary’s movements, habits and tactics, officials said. And the ability to constantly monitor small movements in a wide area – like the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, for example – would dramatically improve military intelligence.
“It is constant surveillance, uninterrupted,” Dahm said. “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.”
The project reflects a shift in Pentagon planning and spending priorities under Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has urged the military services to improve intelligence and surveillance operations while cutting high-tech weaponry costs.
If successful, the dirigible – the brainchild of the Air Force and the Pentagon’s research arm – could pave the way for a fleet of spy airships, military officials said.
In Iraq, the military has used less-sophisticated tethered blimps – called aerostats – to conduct surveillance around military bases. But flying at 65,000 feet, the giant airship would be nearly impossible to see, be beyond the range of any hand-held missile and be safe from most fighter planes.
The range of the spy craft would allow it to operate at distant edges of any military theater, likely out of the range of surface-to-air missiles as well.
The Air Force’s Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance – or ISR – abilities have improved dramatically in the last five years with the expansion of Predator and other drones. Although such craft can linger over an area for a long time, they do not watch constantly.
The radar system is what gives the giant airship its military value. Giant antennae would allow the military to see farther and with more detail than it can now.
The dirigible will be filled with helium and powered by a system that uses solar panels to recharge hydrogen fuel cells. Military officials said those underlying technologies – plus a very lightweight hull – were critical to making the project work.
The Air Force has signed an agreement with DARPA to develop a demonstration dirigible by 2014. The prototype will be one-third as long as the planned surveillance craft.
The Pentagon has not yet awarded a contractor to build the prototype. Earlier work was done by Northrop Grumman and by Lockheed Martin.