Posted : Monday Sep 27, 2010
WASHINGTON — The hottest U.S. weapon in Afghanistan lacks a lethal capability, floats thousands of feet in the air and doesn’t carry troops.
It’s a spy balloon.
The Pentagon is sending dozens of the balloons to Afghanistan to meet a growing military demand for video surveillance of insurgents.
Ashton Carter, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, said balloons fitted with high-powered cameras are needed because unmanned planes such as the Predator can’t be built fast enough. Carter says the demand for video surveillance equipment from Afghan battlefield commanders has been 20 times the rate of supply.
Spy balloons are the latest example of how unmanned weapons are revolutionizing warfare, says Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution. Commanders are pioneering new uses for drones and balloons the way their counterparts in the early 20th century developed uses for planes, he said.
“We’re in a transition period in war,” Singer said. “This kind of experimentation is a pretty good thing. You don’t know exactly the right way to use it at first. The difference between winners and losers is that winners have been the ones who have experimented.”
Spy plane use has soared in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2005 when the military flew 6,165 surveillance missions, according to the Air Force. Last year, there were 18,898 spy plane missions, and through August, there were 11,229.
Enter balloons, which look like small blimps and are known in the military as aerostats. The military began shipping them to Afghanistan to get a better look at how insurgents increased their planting of improvised explosive devices. They’re part of an effort by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to rush equipment to counter the IED threat for the 30,000 additional troops President Obama ordered to Afghanistan.
There are more than 30 spy balloons in Afghanistan, up from a handful at the beginning of the year, Carter said. The goal is to have 64 of them tethered thousands of feet above bases and key roads.
By comparison, there are 27 round-the-clock patrols from Predator and Reaper drones, said Air Force Col. Scott Murray, director of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for the U.S.-led coalition in Kabul. That’s up from nine in August 2008.
The spy balloon’s camera is the same kind as the one on the Predator drone and can see 10 to 15 miles away, Carter said. Recently, one spotted insurgents planting makeshift bombs. They were captured, he said.
“You can spot someone burying an IED or setting up a checkpoint on a road near you; you can catch someone about to mortar your base; you (can) check whether the market is open in a nearby village,” Carter said. “It’s a (drone) in every local commander’s back yard. There was no hope we would ever get that with the expensive fixed-wing airplanes. But we can get that with these.”
At $10 million apiece, the balloons are about half as expensive as drones and the equipment and personnel needed to fly them, he said. Occasionally, they have been lost in high winds, although a few were recovered.
Balloons could someday carry cargo or be used by aircraft for refueling, Singer said.
“In essence, it’s acting as a poor man’s spy satellite,” Singer said.
The balloons’ visibility appears to help deter attacks, Carter said. “The bad guys think it’s looking at them at all times and will catch them,” Carter said. “For good people, it provides a comfort that their environment is secure and they’re being over-watched.”
Murray, the surveillance officer, said some believed the camera could see through walls or women’s clothing. It can’t, he said. For now, anyway.