By David Pugliese

Ottawa Citizen

KABUL –   The white blimp that hovers over this city has been a constant presence in Kabul’s dust and pollution-filled skies since it was sent aloft last summer.

Known as the Persistent Threat Detection System, it consists of an aerostat or “blimp” mounted with camera equipment. The system is flown on a tether at several thousand feet to enable around-the-clock surveillance of a wide area, according to International Security Assistance Force.

Through the PTDS, Afghan National Security Forces have access to high resolution imagery, including full-motion video and audio data from the greater Kabul area, ISAF officials say. That information, together with surveillance data from other security systems, allows for better and earlier threat recognition, which in turn will helps security forces’ “effective responses to threats and attacks,” or so ISAF claims.

The aerostat’s full-motion video camera can pan 360 degrees and provide nonstop, instant surveillance. “With that camera, we can go anywhere in the city to allow us to look for any threats or any intentions from the insurgency,” Col. Marilyn Jenkins, a U.S. Army intelligence officer told the Armed Forces Network Afghanistan last year.

The surveillance system is anchored at Bala Hissar, an ancient fortress on one of the hills that overlooks Kabul.

According to ISAF, such systems have a successful history of integration with security technologies to combat threats in Iraq, and dozens of PTDS have been employed effectively in eastern Afghanistan since early 2004. (ISAF is providing the technology to support the Afghan National Security Forces.)

But how effective is the system?

In the last six months Kabul has been hit by three spectacular insurgent attacks, with suicide bombers and insurgent assault teams targeting high-profile government sites as well as areas frequented by foreigners.  There is no indication that the government or ISAF had advance warning of such attacks because of the aerostat, although the system could have provided surveillance data as the attacks unfolded.

A similar system keeps watch over Kandahar but some military officers I have talked to suggest that the more open approaches to that city make the aerostat a more effective surveillance system for that environment.

Nevertheless, such aerostats/blimps appear to be making a comeback in military circles. Walter Pincus, the veteran security issues reporter for the Washington Post, has noted that the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command and the Army Forces Strategic Command have revived a previous attempt to come up with a self-powered, intelligence-gathering airship. The ideal model would be able to linger for more than three weeks over a target area at 20,000 feet, carrying a 2,500-pound payload of signals and imagery interceptors with a view of 173 miles, according to a special notice issued recently by the Pentagon.

The notice, Pincus points out, outlines how the engines would be able to keep a steady speed of 20 knots, but if needed possess an 80-knot “dash speed.” Though it is expected to be unmanned and operated from the ground, it may be operated with a crew.

Added Pincus in his article: “The ambitious and new five-year program for a 250-foot-long “Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle” calls for 18 months of performance testing “followed by additional tests and demonstrations conducted in Afghanistan,” according to the notice.”

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