Army Investing in Robot Balloons

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Proving the capability of high-tech military balloons will require buzzing drones, jets and an occasional unarmed surface-to-air missile.

Most of the tests will be conducted in military air space above the Snake Valley in Utah during the next several years. Some test flights are scheduled over the northern part of Great Salt Lake.

The military held a series of public meetings this week about the project.

The work is an effort to prove the abilities of unmanned radar-bearing dirigibles -- known as aerostats -- to give field commanders a bird's-eye view of cruise missiles and other threats.

Balloons have been used for military surveillance in the U.S. at least since the Civil War. Today's version uses the same basic concept -- tethered balloons flown high to provide intelligence to troops on the ground -- but with a few high-tech additions.

From more than a mile above the ground, radar-equipped aerostats will provide sweeping 360-degree views of the landscape for more than 100 miles.

The information will be fed to a ground station and quickly integrated into battlefield decisions, the military said.

"It's a great mix of old and new technologies," said Lt. Col. Steve Willhelm, manager of the program known as the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System.

The aerostats, which are 242 feet long, were flight-tested in North Carolina last year but limited to a height of 3,000 feet.

The program is moving to western Utah where Dugway Proving Ground and the Utah Test and Training Range provide nearly 4,000 square miles of remote, sparsely populated landscape. There's also restricted military airspace up to 58,000 feet.

The military plans to fly the helium-filled airships up to 10,000 feet above the ground.

The first Utah flight was conducted earlier this month about 80 miles west of Salt Lake City. The more intensive tests will get under way in March 2011 and last through the end of 2013.

To test the radar capabilities, the military plans to fly up to 50 drone missions and tow targets behind jets.

The military plans up to six live-fire intercepts of drones over Snake Valley.

It said ground-fired missiles won't have warheads, and the drones will break up upon contact and fall to the ground. The exercises will be done at Dugway in an area already used for training operations, the military said.

"We're not going to be do anything that's unsafe out there," Willhelm said.

The dirigibles are tethered to processing stations on the ground, with each aircraft capable of staying aloft for a month.

Officials said the aerostats will be less expensive to maintain and operate than conventional aircraft-based radar while providing battlefield commanders a comprehensive aerial view of threats.

They'll be particularly important for picking up cruise missiles, which fly low and slow, Willhelm said.

Raytheon Co., based in Waltham, Mass., was awarded the development contract for the system.

The military's environmental review of the Snake Valley tests predicts only negligible impacts on wildlife, air quality and other natural resources. A similar review for operations above Great Salt Lake has not been completed.