In the wake of my article covering the USA's future TSAT/ TCA military communications backbone, Robert M asked my the USA didn't use blimps as airborne radars et. al. above cities and such, in addition to their potential role as high-altitude communications relays.
Good suggestion, Robert. In fact, US military blimps are one of the quiet and underreported trends right now. There are even a couple of programs coming down the pipe to fill an AWACS-like radar role - but that isn't all, and we're likely to see civilian spinoffs from a few of these projects.
- The JLENS system is the closest to his suggestion, and it uses aerostats (tethered blimps no engine). Smaller versions are in use at a couple of locations on the front lines for general surveillance, and there have been inexplicably half-hearted efforts to use these along the Mexican border. The real 71 meter JLENS aerostats will fly at med-high altitude and be part of air defense networks via carried radars, infared detectors, et. al. Its characteristics make it especially good against cuse missiles, and it will play some role in missile defense as well. It has been tested in cooperation with naval AEGIS and Army Patriot PAC-3 systems, and can be networked with them via an important set of American technologies called Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC). JLENS just got a $1.3 billion "go!" contract after a bunch of smaller R&D/ testing contracts.
- High Altitude Airship. That's a powered blimp they're working on that's several times the size of the Goodyear Blimp, and will probably have a significant solar power component. Because of its cruising height (60-70 thousand feet for months at a time), it will have greater secondary usefulness as part of a layered ballistic missile defense system. It will also be an excellent communications relay, and could well become part of the TSAT's "incremental competition". Still in the R&D stage, but it's a $150 million R&D program.
- The Navy is paying attention. About 60 years ago, blimps were used for observation over fleets. We may be headed back to the future, because they're experimenting with fleet defense blimps again. Makes sense - why not inflate and release aerostats that get tugged along behind their ships, to do the kinds of things JLENS does. The coverage is less flexible and forward than the E-2 Hawkeye AWACS aircraft, but it's a fantastic complement that can be in the air 24/7 during threat situations. If the CVBG (carrier battle group) has a few up, plus CEC with its AEGIS destroyers and cruiser, it would become a VERY powerful networked radar system. But even US Marines Amphibious Ready Groups or small naval Surface Action Groups could carry and launch them, and a surveillance aerostat could be an interesting swap-in module for the USA's future Littoral Combat Ships.
- And, on a very different note - how about a transport aircraft that can lift 1-2 MILLION pounds, and carry it 6,000 miles? Well, actually it's more like a blimp. I am the WALRUS (goo goo g'joob!). If the military can make this work and solve the ballast problem, this technology will have no shortage of civilian roles as well. Early R&D stage, with the aim of deploying a very small test version that only has the capacity of a C-130 Hercules (40,000 pounds) by 2008-2009.
- DID has a whole topic archive for coverage of blimps and related air vehicles, if that interests folks.