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These massive balloons are key to cruise missile defense


Photo: US Army

The white craft look innocuous, like small blimps, but veterans of the war in Afghanistan may remember the difference they made in combat, allowing friendly forces to constantly see everything happening in an area.

The aerostats have traded their cameras for sophisticated radars and are now part of a cruise missile shield for America's capital.

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Cruise missiles can be armed with either conventional or nuclear warheads. Russia is inventing new missiles and disguising old ones, according to the Atlantic Council. One Russian missile, the Club-K, can be smuggled in civilian shipping containers.

The blimps work in pairs to defeat these threats. One collects 360 degrees of radar information at all times while the other holds a fire control radar that hones in on specific threats. Flying from 10,000 feet, they can cover an area nearly the size of Texas. The targeting information can be passed on to defending forces in the area. Adm. William Gortney, NORAD and U.S. Northern Commander, wants the aerostats' radars to be integrated with Navy ships and Air Force fighter jets in the area.

If the upgrades are approved, ships and planes would be able to collect targeting data from the ships and launch missiles to bring down the threat immediately.

Like the video above states, the blimps don't only watch out for cruise missiles. They can also see approaching ships and vehicles, allowing defenders to identify cruise missile launchers and other threats as well. This would allow forces to target the launchers before the missiles are in the air, a much cheaper and safer option than going after in-flight missiles.