Friday, April 1, 2011

Cameras, Spy Balloons Surge in Afghanistan

Cameras, Spy Balloons Surge in Afghanistan: "

The U.S. military may be preparing its spy planes to support the NATO-led war in Libya. But it’s also preparing to surge about $1 billion worth of balloon-mounted cameras and other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance gear to Afghanistan in advance of the Taliban’s anticipated spring re-up.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates testified to the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday that “we will be adding ISR to Afghanistan,” not diverting it to Libya. His spokesman, Geoff Morrell, says that the money won’t go to “more Predators” or other high-end drones. Instead, it’ll provide cheap ways for troops to add to perimeter surveillance for their bases and outposts: “aerostats and fixed-camera positions.”

That’s to help troops spot insurgents who plant homemade bombs in the areas surrounding the bases or to mass for attacks against U.S. forces. Those homemade bombs are on the rise in Afghanistan, but the outgoing director of the Pentagon’s task force to defeat the deadly devices credits tools like the aerostats for dramatic decreases in the bombs’ effectiveness.

The Pentagon’s hot on its cameras-n-balloons approach, known as the Persistent Threat Detection Systems program. “It has a wide area range that can also cover down on roads” when mounted atop towers on Afghan bases, says Morrell. “When daisy chained together throughout a battlespace it soaks up the terrain and becomes eyes in the sky.”

In March, Gates sought to rapidly get the cameras and spy balloons into the fight by taking money out of the Army’s Humvee budget, setting up a brief fight with the House panel that appropriates defense cash, which didn’t act fast enough on the ISR request to satisfy Gates. The defense secretary’s comments on Thursday effectively represented a resolution of the issue to his satisfaction.

Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, requested the additional spy gear in advance of a seasonal return to fighting by the Taliban, which he has forecast will be exceptionally intense this spring.

Commanders in Afghanistan tether balloons mounted with cameras and sensors to towers on their bases for an expansion of their ability to spot threats for a fraction of the cost of a drone. The Army’s even looking to mount dummy balloons as a way of psyching out insurgents.

No word yet on when the new sensors, cameras and aerostats will arrive in the country, but Morrell says the Pentagon is rushing to get them there before the Taliban resume its expected spring assault.

Photo: U.S. Army


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