Pentagon Develops New High-flying Spy Blimp

The Pentagon has just announced plans to spend $400 million on developing a huge airship that will hover 65,000 feet above the Earth for 10 years. The blimp, if launched successfully, will monitor the movements – via elaborate radar surveillance – of vehicles, planes and even people.

Werner J.A. Dahm, the chief scientist for the Air Force, has high expectations of the blimp, which is to be a cross between satellite and spy plane. “It is absolutely revolutionary,” he reports.

The airship is a whopper – 450 feet in length – but it will give the U.S. Armed Forces immense insight into enemy activity and strategy, including very small, seemingly insignificant movements, over large areas, such as the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The surveillance will operate around the clock and greatly improve U.S. military intelligence.

Dahm emphasizes how important it is to have constant surveillance in areas of ongoing conflict, “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.”

Although the Air Force’s intelligence and surveillance capabilities have improved significantly over the last five years with the expansion of the Predator and other drones, these vehicles cannot linger over an area continuously.


The new blimp project marks a continued shift in the Pentagon’s focus from high-tech weapons spending to improved intelligence and surveillance ops, as advocated by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. The airship plans are the combined result of research dept. efforts by the Pentagon and the Air Force, and could lead to a whole fleet of these unmanned spy aerial vehicles.

Some are apprehensive, however. They remind the scientists of the 1937 Hindenburg case in which an airship combusted over New Jersey, killing 36. But that was over 70 years ago, and technology has progressed in leaps and bounds since.

The military does use less-sophisticated tethered blimps (aerostats) to conduct surveillance around military bases in Iraq, but to have a blimp flying at 65,000 feet would make it nearly impossible to detect, as well as beyond the range of any hand-held missile and most fighter planes.

The airship will be filled with helium and powered by a newly developed system that uses solar panels to recharge hydrogen fuel cells. It will be outfitted with giant antenna allowing the military to see farther and in greater detail than it can presently. These underlying technologies, added to a very light hull, make the blimp revolutionary and are critical to having it operate as planned. The craft is known as ISIS, which stands for Integrated Sensor Is the Structure, because the radar system will be built into the structure of the ship.

The Air Force has signed an agreement with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a demo version by 2014. The prototype will be about 60% the length of the planned craft.

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