back to article Airships can defeat roadside bombers, says ex-US officer

An ex-US air force officer has said that unmanned spy airships capable of defeating terrorist/insurgent bombers could have been in service years ago, saving many lives among US and allied troops. He says that the technology was "illegally" sidelined by senior officers determined to preserve satellite and aircraft budgets. Ed …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    At 60,000 feet watching everything

    Hasn't heard of clouds then?

    Perhaps he's been operating at high altitude with a faulty oxygen mask

    1. Pablo


      Could be a problem, but I imagine that's not as big a deal in Afghanistan as it would be many places.

    2. Trygve

      haven't you heard of infra-red?

      There are plenty of practical obstacles to enblimpinating the war zone, but I think seeing at night or through cloud is one of the lesser ones. Likewise, shooting at a big non-pressurised bag of gas hovering silently 10km directly above your head is probably not a high-success activity.

      Now if the IED were to be on the side of a road, then figuring out which of the 87 people who passed that spot in the last 24 hours dropped a bomb there - that could be a challenge. And if you were to rewind the video and figure out where they live, then identifying exactly which of the 158 residents of the mud-walled compound are your bombers - now that might be tricky too.

      You'd think by now people would have given up looking for magic easy-fix tech solutions to Being Stuck In A Shitstorm, but I guess that's the power of optimism.

      1. TeeCee Gold badge
        Thumb Down

        IED placement.

        Of those 87 people you'll be looking for the one who stopped, knelt down, very carefully placed the IED with its shaped charge and penetrator pointed in the right direction*, rigged its tripwire/trigger pad, armed it** and then carefully covered it up to prevent its intended victims** going "oh look, there's an IED lying on the ground over there".

        *Important bit.

        **Who have a vested interest in keeping a very sharp eye out for such things.

  2. Thomas 18

    Internet Eyes

    Lets get teenagers to watch the feeds and press space bar every time someone lays a mine! They can have a monthly prize of an acre of Afghanistan

    1. Lewis Mettler 1

      not too bad of an idea

      Certainly there are people in Afganistan that would keep an eye out for suspecious activity.

      Maybe the US should offer a $5000 prise for anyone identifing the location of one of those IEDs. Before it kills a bunch of our boys. Lots of eyes on the ground. And perhaps another $5000 if they can pinpoint where those dudes came from.

      Any solution to the IED problem may have to come from the local population. And we can certainly afford to pay what would amount to a nice years salary for just one tip. Do people in Afg need jobs?

      1. Thorsten

        no title

        So you're going to pay a year's salary for identifying the location of an IED? And how much would it cost to assemble an IED? Do you see a problem with the plan?

  3. BristolBachelor Gold badge

    Works until...

    Works until... those doing the nasty find out what is happening. Then they just arrange to move through a number of places that are undercover (think underground car-parks) so that you can't trace where the bomb making factory is.

    However, this aside, this is a great idea. A resolution of say 2.5cm at ground level to be able to reliably track targets, especially through crowds, and recording an area the size of the UK. I know a home secretary who will have a few....

    If they can just work out active arrays to read passive rfid tags at that distance with the same positional accuracy....

    1. qwertyuiop


      Just how common do you think underground car-parks are in the more remote parts of Afghanistan? I suspect that they won't pose much of a problem...

      1. Freddie

        But then...

        a busy shop/house would suffice.

      2. the Jim bloke Silver badge


        they would all use Osama Bin Ladens cave.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Straddle the Tropopause?

    Like have fun surfing that gnarly gravity wave dude!

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Resolution not that important

    I would think that resolution for such a camera is not that important. Unless you want to see the whites of their eyes, just monitoring how pixels change colour as stuff moves around should be adequate for monitoring and tracking purposes. The actual resolution will depend on the type of ground being covered. High density populated areas will need more than sparsely populated rural areas.

  6. Anonymous Coward

    The camera is not a problem

    In order to track a target you do not need to follow it literally all the time in realtime. All you need is to take a picture every N seconds. Pick moving targets via radar (or wide angle low res IR) and use a couple of high res cameras on servo mounts. Presto - job done.

    However, there is a much bigger obstacle to a stratospheric airship which this gentleman is missing. It is called JETSTREAM. 20000 to 60000 feet is prime jetstream homeland. I order to keep an airship fixed 24x7 above a specific location for a significant amount of time said airship needs to be able to fly at up to 150mph to counter wind. Alternatively, a significantly more than one airship along with a logistics operation to retrieve them once they are past their targets will be required.

  7. Acme Fixer

    In Deference

    Even though the author, Lewis, may be British, I think he should spell "US Army Space and Missile Defence Command" the way the U.S. Military spells it, not to be a pedant but just because the British spelling has a lot less chance of being found by a search engine.

    I've often wondered why these troops can't just keep an eye out for IED perps from the ground and nail them with a few bullets. Better yet, get a high powered transmitter and use it to trigger the IED while the perps are arming it. POOF! end of problem.

  8. DI_Wyman

    At 60,000 feet watching everything

    Above / in clouds and in the dark?

    yer 'avin' a larf!

  9. Ian Ferguson
    Big Brother

    I'm sure it'll work

    After all, ubiquitous CCTV has stopped crime in London, hasn't it - as crime is always caught on camera, and the perpetrators are always identified and caught?

    1. markp 1
      Thumb Down

      Oh, it's fantastic.

      I mean, the speed with which they got back the backpack stolen from my car when some miscreant stoved in the windows of a long line of parked vehicles back in november was incredible. CCTV caught the bugger red handed and they had him in the cells by teatime. And the deterrence factor was so good that he didn't in fact do the crime in the first place, I wasn't inconvenienced by loss of kit, paperwork, time and glass, or all the shards filling my car, and neither were any of the other people involved.

      Yeah, there was no need for me to do half their work (getting witness statements, seeing about whether the obvious nearby cameras were actually in use etc) for them, sit around twiddling my thumbs wondering when SOCA was actually going to call me back as promised, or eventually save up the money required to buy replacements (a couple weeks ago) for all the lost stuff (because the paltry insurance payout would be lost into increased premiums after 2 years) or STILL be in the middle of restoring all the stuff that I had actually backed up onto CDRs and DVDRs that have turned out to be rather unsuited to archiving, because one of the drives held my "running" backup. Oh no. None at all.

      So effective, I love it.

      .... pull the other one, BB.

  10. Graeme 5

    Air ships, the new snake-oil

    Why aren't we doing this?

    in one word, WIND

    the air isn't still up there

    the british army tried this in Northern Ireland they require to much fuel just to remain on one spot

    But lets not let the facts get in the way of a spot of Crab-Bashing

  11. Tom Smith 1 Silver badge

    Sitting Duck?

    Obviously it will depend on how big this hypothetical airship is, and how high above the ground it will be stationed at, but if it's sat in one position, won't it make a pretty easy target for any bampot with an AK?

    1. lglethal Silver badge

      i may be wrong here...

      But im not aware of too many AK's (or any other non-artillery piece) which can fire a bullet 60,000 feet let alone 60,000 feet directly up against gravity...

      You might want to read the article a little more closely before commenting next time... ;)

  12. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    The math is impressive

    It's a classic remote sensing design problem. If you take say a +/- view from vertical of 30 degress (and the same along track) if your looking at 1 ft resolution you get 19.2 *billion* pixels. That's 19.2x10^9 per *frame*. I haven't factored in the number of bits per pixel either. If you want moving pictures (say 25fps?) well you where this is going. Storage is getting cheaper but it's *not* that cheap.

    Sure frame to frame compression shoul lower that by quite a bit, but there's so damm much of it to begin with.

    And as others have noted the jetstreat is pretty fierce.

    1. markp 1

      Nice, you've done my work for me

      I was going to try and figure out how many 10-megapixel CCDs you'd need to chain together to cover a typical 100 km^2 or mile ^2 area (ie 10 of those on a side) but I'll happily use your figures. I'm assuming 60,000ft, here? And the high resolution is only in the centre of the image?

      You can probably get away with only 2 or 3ft rez for tracking a lone person-blob and certainly their vehicle (lets say 2ft). So, 4.8 billion, or 480 CCDs. Excessive, but within the realms of reality and do-ability, particularly on a military budget. People have made super-high-rez cameras of that type. And for the planned purposes, 1 or maybe as much as 5fps is sufficient depending on how busy the area of interest is and what sort of transport is involved. You could use something more akin to a flatbed scanner with a roving, 1D imaging head and a pivoting mirror sweeping back and forth at the target acquisition rate (relative movements not appearing to "tear" because of the large capture area). Chuck in some delta compression, MPG2-style, with quarterpixel and whole-scene movement detection and a beefy, custom-made image processor to tie it all together, plus a skip-full of 2Tb hard disks (it's alright, the airship can lift them) and the requisite power supplies and you're laughing. The information doesn't need to be kept long-term, you just need to freeze the previous 48 hours or so (however long since the last successful patrol in the same area that DIDNT get blown up) to pipe down a high speed data link for analysis, then it can be rolled over.

      Ah to hell with it. 10x10km at 1/2m resolution, what's that? 20,000 pixels on a side? So, 400mpix? A bit more realistic, though it's still going to need upto (400/2 * 5/60 =) 17x the horsepower of a live HD encoder. But, better than needing 200x or more. Build a few of those rigs, and have a small network of ships to cover adjoining and slightly overlapping areas if you need to cover more land than a typical large-ish city, and for redundancy. Job done.

  13. disgruntled yank

    this would be

    Colonel Blimp?

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    Small arms

    "but if it's sat in one position, won't it make a pretty easy target for any bampot with an AK?"

    An AK47 will certainly not propel a bullet higher than 1000 meters. The USAF man wants to place the airship at 20 kilometers height. Only the largest surface-to-air missiles can reach that. Obviously those are large, heavy and expensive. Something like Patriot or S300....

  15. asdf

    USAF ftl

    Don't get me wrong I can't speak to this particular problem but I can say in general I agree with Secretary Gates that the USAF is purposely still fighting the cold war to defend their jobs and the fat contracts with their defense industry buddies. Easy way to fix this is go back to how they started, fold them into the army chain of command as the Army Air Corp again. That should reduce parochial generals from wasting tax payer money that could be used to help prevent the brave men and women in uniform from dying on the ground.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      RE: USAF ftl

      @asdf: It's not "brave men and women in uniform from dying on the ground" it's innocent Afghani civilians being shot by US troops...

  16. Anonymous Coward

    US military thinking

    "The entire, huge, detailed picture would be recorded, so creating a record of every bomb-laying or ambush team as it left its home base or IED factory, travelled to the point of action and set up its trap."

    So you need to know where the bomb-laying or ambush team comes from in the first place? In which case why not just go there and stop them before they have a chance to lay any bombs.

    Typical inside-out thinking - which is why any ideas from this guy are going to be a complete waste of money. There may be merit in the suggestion but the argument presented doesn't even make sense!

    1. markp 1


      You use this to find out where the IED factory is, which quite possibly looks like Joe McRandom's house either somewhere in the city or e.g. a common or garden goatherd's farmhouse. The assumption is that it's, say, within a couple of hours travel time (on foot, or by knackered HiLux over pitted roads) from the area currently suffering significant IED trouble, so the enemy can comfortably get out under cover of night / everyday human traffic, nonchalantly plant a few roadside bombs, and scarper along backstreets familiar to them and confusing to their targets, back to base to start making the next day's batch, eat, sleep, catch a bit of Infidels Do The Funniest Things, etc. Centre the airship over the hotspot, camouflaged so hopefully it's not too obvious from the ground, and wait.

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