Magazine article National Defense

Cruise Missile Defense Grid Needs Eyes over the Horizon

Magazine article National Defense

Cruise Missile Defense Grid Needs Eyes over the Horizon

Article excerpt

A pair of blimps equipped with advanced sensors and linked to ground stations via cables are part of a broad U.S. effort to defend troops against cruise missiles.

Aerostat balloons are no newcomers to the battlefield. They were used as early as the Civil War in the 1860s as observation platforms and for air-directed artillery fire. During both world wars this century, they performed reconnaissance missions. And, according to the U.S. Army, the initial invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi forces in 1990 was first detected by sensors on a balloon.

These low-cost, low-tech airships are now part of a $200 million Defense Department program designed to detect and cue weapons in order to destroy enemy cruise missiles before they can deliver their lethal payload.

Pentagon planners worry that U.S. forces in combat are ill-protected against enemy use of cruise missilesthe same self-guided weapons that have become the weapon of choice for U.S. commanders.

"Our enemies are looking at the way we are using cruise missiles. This is becoming more of a challenge for us," said Lt. Gen. John Costello, commander of the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command, Huntsville, Alabama. He briefed reporters during a recent conference sponsored by the command.

David Osias, a U.S. intelligence officer, said the United States has a reason to fret about enemy use of cruise missiles, which are a "better vehicle for delivery of chemical and biological warheads. They are more easily hidden." According to U.S. estimates, there are 73 countries that produce cruise missiles, most of which are anti-ship weapons. About a dozen countries actively export the missiles.

Under a program called joint land attack cruise-missile-defense elevated-netted-sensor system (JLENS), U.S. forces will deploy two balloons, one to perform surveillance and one for fire control against cruise missiles.

Each aerostat is 71 meters long, which is about the size of a Boeing 747 jet, explained Col. Herbert Carr, the Army program manager for JLENS. In the battlefield, JLENS would be located behind the Patriot anti-missile batteries.

"Aerostats are inexpensive to fly. They are one-tenth of the cost of fixedwing aircraft," he said. That equates to $400 an hour to operate the balloon versus $4,000 for aircraft. The heliumfilled aerostat can carry up to 4,500 pounds of payload and flies at altitudes of 15,000 feet. The fire control payload includes a precision track-illuminating radar and communications links. The surveillance sensor will have a longer range. The balloon is tethered to a ground station with cable that supplies power and data links.

JLENS is designed essentially to provide battlefield commanders a "single integrated air picture ... a capability to detect threats beyond the horizon," said Carr. That is important to military planners because they believe enemy cruise missiles likely will carry chemical and biological weapons. This means that, if the incoming missile has to be destroyed, it should be hit while in enemy territory to avoid contaminating friendly areas.

Currently aerostats are tethered to fixed sites, but future systems will be mobile, said Carr.

"The aerial part of JLENS is not very survivable. But the ground system is more our concern," he added. But he believes the aerostat is "high enough that hardly anything can touch it. …

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