Saturday, July 7, 2012

Who Says the Government Wastes Money – Here’s $500 million On New Spy Technology

New If One is Living in 1863

Because it was captured on newsreel film, the explosion of the passenger blimp Hiddenburg  is one of the more enduring visions of what can happen in transportation accidents.  Passenger blimps had been hailed as a really neat innovation in air transportation until nature reminded everyone why it is that hydrogen should not be used as a buoyant in floating a dirigible.  (Hydrogen is highly explosive for those readers who skipped class that day.  If you did skip that day you had a lot of company, like the people who designed dirigibles using hydrogen gas).

The dirigible has since been re-born by corporate America as a advertising and marketing device.  First the Goodyear company and later other companies like Met Life developed blimps to carry their trademarks over sporting event venues.  These machines provided nice aerial views of golf tournaments and the like, and someone came up the idea of filling the blimps with helium, so no more fiery crashes.

So after several decades, which is usually about what it takes for the Defense Department to notice something, the U. S. armed forces may get a blimp as a spy and surveillance device.  Of course, there is the cost, not exactly what Goodyear and others paid for their blimps.  And no, the Army was in no hurry.

When the company announced in June 2010 it had been awarded $517 million contract to develop the LEMV, it promised to deliver the first in 18 months. But the Army repeatedly has delayed plans for a first flight.

The plans are for the blimp to hover in Afghanistan, spying on the Taliban and other enemy combatants.  In fact it turns out the U. S. is already using this advanced technology (advanced in the sense that it was also used by the Union in the Civil War).

Lighter-than-air surveillance craft are not new: Smaller, tethered blimps known as aerostats are a common sight in Afghanistan, where troops use them to keep an eye out for potential attacks.

But according to military experts, larger airships can carry more cameras and sensors than small blimps, and also allow military commanders to multi-task. For instance, a surveillance airship could carry equipment that would allow it to pick up a phone call, detect its location, and point a camera in the right direction.

Capable of flying at heights greater than 20,000 feet, the airship would be beyond the range of small arms fire or rocket-propelled grenades used by Afghan insurgents.

So it is nice to know that this half billion dollar device will not immediately be shot down, but there still might be other problems.

Beyond the first flight, aviation experts say the debut of LEMV brings a host of practical considerations: How many people would be required to operate it; how to fly the slow, lumbering aircraft all the way to Afghanistan; and how the giant airship will handle the high winds and weather of the Hindu Kush.

One person familiar with the program questioned whether it would live up the promise of weeks-long surveillance.

"I've never been anywhere in the world where the weather was good enough to fly for 21 straight days," this person said.

Finally, it is well known that the big problem in major cities around the world is parking.  But who would have guessed that is also a problem in Afghanistan.

What's more, the Army will have to figure out one other issue: where in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region to park the massive airship for maintenance.

And if parking is $14.00 a half hour in Manhattan, imagine what the corruption ridden government of Afghanistan will charge.

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