Towers and Blimps – Follow Up

PTDS_Aerostat Afghanistan

When I looked at Towers and Blimps last month I described how the MoD told the House of Parliament in 2008

To improve the current deployed operating base protection capability, new systems have been provided in Iraq and Afghanistan using mast and aerostat-mounted visual and electronic sensors.

In all the media coverage of Afghanistan not once since then has any mention of UK aerostats being made public but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there.

The Cortez project implementing various systems for surveillance at base locations.

News out today at Aviation Week seems to confirm that a team is now en route to Afghanistan to

establish the U.K.’s first forward operating base equipped with a fully-integrated aerostat

Persistent Ground Surveillance System (PGSS) is a US system and the latest in a long line of elevated surveillance systems using a combination of advanced sensors, distribution networks, aerostats, masts and analysis software. The US have several in Afghanistan.

Defence Systems Journal reported in May

PGSS – really a smaller, cheaper, more deployable version of the Persistent Threat Detection System (PTDS) — increases intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities and provides a more complete surveillance picture through inclusion of information from new sensor systems including EO/IR, full-motion video, and various acoustic payloads.  Dr. Carter argued that the system provides better persistent (24/7) surveillance and associated situational awareness than can be provided by fixed wing aircraft at considerably less cost.

The PGSS aerostat is a small (25,000 ft3) helium-filled tethered blimp that can raise a payload of up to 150 pounds to 1,200-2,000 feet and remain aloft for up to two weeks.  The mainstay PGSS payload is a (98 pound) L-3 Wescam MX-15 EO/IR sensor, but the turret can accommodate most any payload or payload combination of up to 150 pounds.  PGSS has carried various acoustic (shot/mortar identication) sensors and a SIGINT payload deployment appears to be also in the offing.

Program officials noted that the coverage areas of the PGSS with the MX-15 EO/IR payload are as follows: detect a vehicle at 18km; identify a vehicle at 12km; detect a man at 12km; identify a man at 4km.

As for operations, PGSS is operated in theater by contractor personnel, with plans to eventually train uniformed personnel.  The aerostat can be filled with helium in an hour and has a requirement to remain aloft for up to two weeks.  The aerostat can be deployed/launched in sustained winds of up to 20 kts. and operated in sustained winds of up to 60 kts.

To make PGSS more tactically deployable, DoD (with NAVAIR in the lead) is pursuing a spiral development to make the 16K lb. mooring station light enough to allow helicopter sling transport.

PGSS even has its own Flickr page and the Empire Challenge 10 event at which PGSS was demonstrated has a wide range of images here

There is a great story on their deployment in Afghanistan with US forces here

It is really cost-effective stuff and reportedly, UK forces will be receiving 5 such systems.

There is no doubt that this is fantastic news but is it, once again, a case of waiting for the perfect when the good enough would do?

US and Canadian forces have been using aerostats and tower-based surveillance systems for several years, the first one in Iraq in 2004. Since these initial deployments, the various systems have improved in many areas but the UK has been searching for the last degree of capability before deploying, wanting to integrate the PGSS feed into a Cortez display rather than a stand-alone display and other enhancements that will no doubt make the UK variant superior.

We are really not in a position to second guess or criticise decisions made by personnel at the MoD whose responsibility this is but the question has to be asked, is this and Talisman symptomatic of our larger acquisition problems. The US and Canada seem to get equipment into theatre and improve it in the background, we wait until everything is 100% ready and then deploy.

Which is the right approach, not sure?

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