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The case for aerostats and persistent surveillance

Line of Defence Magazine, Winter 2017

TCOM 28M AerostatTCOM 28M Aerostat


In this exclusive Line of Defence interview, Matt McNiel, Vice President of TCOM, LP, a global ISR solutions provider of Lighter-Than-Air Persistent Surveillance Tethered Aerostat platforms, puts the case forward for aerostatic surveillance in the New Zealand context.


Camera and radar fitted surveillance aerostats have seen plenty of action in areas of operations across international conflict zones, and in strategic homeland defence roles. While these tethered blimps haven’t necessarily captured popular imagination in quite the same way that their fixed-wing UAV cousins have, they are – quite literally – the silent, motionless achievers of unmanned surveillance.

The Rapidly Elevated Aerospace Platform (REAP), first deployed by the US Army in Iraq in late 2003, features a 2,600-cu-ft (30 feet long) aerostat that can be deployed from the back of a Humvee in five minutes, elevating a 35-pound camera payload up to 300 feet. At the other end of the spectrum is the US JLENS (Joint Land attack Elevated Netted Sensor) program, which utilises a 74 meter long, 670,000-cu-ft radar-carrying aerostats to detect cruise missiles and provide fire control data in support of ground-based air defence.

These larger aerostats can stay airborne for up to 30 days providing continuous 360-degree detection of over the horizon threats up to 550 km away. The 71-metre TCOM AEW aerostat deployed by the Kuwait armed forces, for example, gave enough warning of the 1990 Iraqi invasion to allow for the evacuation of the Kuwaiti royal family.

Their cost effectiveness and high-resolution image transmission have also kept aerostats in high demand for aerial border surveillance applications. The US Customs and Border Protection TARS (Tethered Aerostat Radar System) program has operated for over 30 years since tethered aerostats were deployed to counter a rising trend of drug smugglers using low-flying small aircraft to avoid ground-based radar.

With the world’s fourth largest maritime domain and a 2016 Defence White Paper imperative to protect it, we ask ‘can New Zealand benefit from the blimp?’


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LoD: How applicable are these platforms to the New Zealand maritime and coastal surveillance context, particularly in light of NZ's vast maritime domain?  

MM: Increasing geopolitical tensions within the Asia-Pacific region in areas such as the South China Sea and North Korea, global warming, and demand for search and rescue operations, have created an impetus for countries with large and spread maritime coastlines to reassess what, how, where, and when a real or perceived threat becomes imminent to their strategic interests.

In recent media reports, it was widely reported that regional countries such as Australia, Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea, are actively increasing their proactive vigilance. Wisely, they are also considering an all-of-the-above approach for ensuring full situational awareness with optimised intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) for land, air, and sea domains.  

Now, more than ever, persistent situational awareness is critical. However, unlike in landlocked contexts, New Zealand presents a unique challenge as ISR must be successful in multi-modal environments including air, land, and sea.

The New Zealand Ministry of Defence and NZDF have sought information on platforms and services that could potentially contribute to solutions for air surveillance operations beyond the withdrawal of the current P-3K2 Orion based capability, planned for the middle of the next decade. The FASC project will deliver an enhanced airborne surveillance and reconnaissance capability to be operated by the RNZAF.

In addition to traditional missions, the NZDF is involved in a range of taskings, such as search and rescue operations, and circumventing illegal fishing and natural resource depletion, in areas that take in the Pacific and Southern Oceans and the Antarctic.  The deployment of UAVs and aerostats from moveable barges is an option for total surveillance coverage of remote open-water areas, and also for retransmission and extending communication ranges.


LoD: What is the advantage of persistent aerostats over other surveillance platforms?

MM: Even with modern advancements in ISR technologies, there is simply no one solution that can persistently provide all of the intelligence needed. However, one of the most effective, efficient, and fast-to-deploy solutions to help critical decision makers get the information they require is the lighter-than-air Tactical Maritime Aerostat. These battle-tested systems are loaded with the latest ISR technology that can be used to monitor and gather intelligence from a highly reliable platform hovering over strategic points and providing an ‘eye in the sky’ for concerned governments

Aerostats offer persistent surveillance solutions that have unique advantages over traditional ground-based radar and onboard surveillance systems. For example, when naval vessels are moored or transiting port waters, they are subject to unique surveillance and security challenges. Threats such as small, fast moving boats are not easily detectable using traditional ship-mounted cameras or ground-based radar.

Aerostat systems act as a “virtual fence” along coastlines, around vessels, or the port perimeter by providing continuous, real-time monitoring of activities. The system can detect threats at greater range and in the blind spots of traditional surface based sensors, providing security forces with more time to think, react, engage, and neutralise threats.

Tactical Class Aerostat systems are ideal for maritime deployment, on land, or directly from a vessel at sea. They can be assembled and deployed in a very short period and manned by a minimal crew.

The aerostat system can carry payloads including day/night EO/IR cameras, radars, communications relays, and electronic warfare packages. It can be deployed from the deck of a vessel or a static location, such as a dock or onshore mooring station. The larger size aerostat systems have greater capacity that allows the Operational Class systems to operate at higher altitudes for greater surveillance range, remaining aloft for up to 30 days at a time and ensuring round-the-clock persistent surveillance for highly trafficked areas and maritime borders.

TCOM’s 28M is one of the most widely-used aerostat systems available today. The 28M offers battle-proven reliability and can be customised with multiple payload configurations to meet a range of mission requirements. TCOM Operational Class aerostat systems offer unrivaled versatility and performance, with flexibility and portability for accelerated launch and retrieval, and the capacity for sustained deployment for up to two weeks at a time.

For countries like New Zealand, with vast maritime coastal areas that require different monitoring options, aerostat systems offer several key competitive advantages over other platforms. The first is cost. Aerostat systems require comparably minimal maintenance, resulting in an exceptionally low hourly operational cost. This allows users to obtain highly accurate, real-time surveillance data, at a remarkably low total cost of ownership.

With an advanced maritime radar, a single sea surveillance system can track maritime targets at distances of 60 nautical miles and cover thousands of square miles for weeks at a time.

Secondly, aerostat systems are capable of being on station for weeks at a time. This ensures that there are fewer lapses in coverage due to refueling or unexpected mechanical issues. They are also highly resilient and suited for harsh operating conditions. Due to the inert nature of Helium gas with which the aerostat is inflated, aerostat systems do not combust and are highly durable in flight.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, aerostats payloads are easily reconfigurable allowing the platform to be retrofitted to accommodate the latest ISR technologies in minutes compared to months, and without the need to re-qualify the airframe for safety of flight. For example, aerostat systems can function as a versatile platform for ISR payloads, including electro-optical/infrared cameras, radar, video, communications relays, and even cellular data and Wi-Fi.

Aerostats can simultaneously support passive surveillance payloads like COMINT, SIGINT, and ELINT, thermal imaging and optical sensors, as well as communications payloads at the lowest possible hourly cost for an airborne asset. Early detection and direct communications with air and sea assets afford a critical window of time to evaluate the situation, coordinate forces, and engage.

Just like the best engineered automobiles or aircraft, aerostats are not perfect. They need to be tested and designed to meet specific field conditions and payloads. Additionally, operators must be well trained to achieve maximum effectiveness.

In contradiction to some, apparently uninformed media reports, history clearly shows that aerostats are highly reliable. Moreover, they have been and continue to be successfully used deployed the world in regional conflict zones such as the Middle East, Afghanistan, the Indian sub-continent, North America, and soon to be in Southeast Asia.

With a proven track record of 45 years with millions of airborne hours of persistent surveillance in austere environments, aerostats are here to stay and are growing as innovators continue to find new uses for this reliable lighter-than-air platform.


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