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It's a new-age solution with an old-school approach.
The white blimps that gently sway across the Afghanistan horizon carry state-of-the-art surveillance systems that provide constant security and intelligence to the soldiers based below. And one manufacturer has launched a system able to cover 100 square kilometers in the blink of an eye.
Lockheed Martin has been a leader in this endeavor. The company was awarded $383 million in October 2011 to operate and sustain the Persistent Threat Detection System. More than 65 have been purchased since 2004. The aerostat's 500-pound payload includes the L-3 Wescam Mx-20 EO/IR camera, acoustic sensors and communication relays. Lockheed has invested another $85 million to add wide-area sensors.
The 70-foot Persistent Ground Surveillance System aerostat, made by TCOM LP, is about one-third the size of the PTDS. Its reduced size — and cost — has made it popular with many smaller forward operating bases. It provides continuous detection of surface targets and low-flying aircraft out to 200 miles.
Now, Logos Technologies has reached new heights with the 360-degree Kestrel motion-imagery system. The electro-optical/infrared units are mounted on PTDS and PGSS aerostats and provide wide-area persistent surveillance in both day and night, said John Marion, Director of Logos' Persistent Surveillance Division. This eye-in-the-sky covers a city-sized area at once, and records all activity taking place in the protected area.
Unlike other systems, Kestrel records every event that happens in the monitored area for up to 30 days. The capability is such a leap that operators and analysts fear "information overload." Logos Technologies answered with new software that monitors "boxes" and alerts operators when movement occurs. Upgrades also will allow operators to index locations, and retrieve and review all activity at that point for specified periods of time. Such surveillance will be critical when the Army begins to reduce its theater manning levels later this year, officials said.
Kestrel, birthed out of an Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Task Force initiative for protection of forward bases, was developed within 12 months. Six Kestrel systems were delivered to theater in September. Those provided day surveillance only, as the Army wanted to quickly field the capability. The first two of 10 day/night systems were delivered in early March.
The system has logged 5,000 hours, and already is making a difference. Coalition troops have not only identified insurgents planting improvised explosive devices but also watched them return to home base — where the good guys would soon pay a visit. In another instance, enemy troops hit a U.S. base with a rocket barrage. Again, Kestrel kept a close watch as the aggressors entered a nearby compound. But as the local ground commander planned his raid, Kestrel operators were able to identify that this was an ambush in the making. A command-detonated IED vehicle was parked at the compound entrance. The U.S. commander quickly changed his game plan and called in air support.
The Department of Homeland Security has also taken notice, as Kestrel can exponentially increase border patrol and countertrafficking missions, Marion said. The system was demonstrated the week of March 26 to DHS officials in Nogales, Ariz. Customs and Border Protection agents were provided a Raven Aerostar carrying Kestrel. It was tethered 2,000 feet above the desert. Authorities apprehended 30 suspects on the first night of the demonstration and 50 more before the week was over, Marion said.
Kestrel has about a 90 percent mission availability, but don't let the number fool you. Most of the downtime happens in the first six weeks when it is being married to its host and climate, Marion said.
"After that, it is quite reliable," he said.
Aerostats can remain on station for nearly one month at a time, unless lightning or winds in excess of 55 mph arise.