The Strategic Role of Tactical Maritime Aerostats in Ensuring Persistent Surveillance

By Matt McNiel

Increasing geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea have created a strategic impetus for the United States and its regional allies to reassess what, how, where, and when a real or perceived threat becomes imminent to strategic interests in this region of the world. Now more than ever, persistent situational awareness is critical. However, unlike traditional landlocked conflict zones, the South China Sea presents a unique challenge as ISR must be successful in multi-modal environments including air, land, and maritime environments.

Adding to that complexity is the presence of largely populated areas in multiple countries proximate to the conflict zone, making it difficult to select one tool or method to create an effective operational ‘big picture’ for decision makers. In recent media reports, it was widely reported that regional states such as the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea, are actively increasing their proactive vigilance. Wisely, they are also considering an all-of-the-above approach for their defenses for  ensuring full situational awareness with optimized intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) for land, air, and sea domains.  

Even with modern advancements in ISR technologies, there is simply no one solution that can persistently provide all of the intelligence needed. However, one of the most effective, efficient, and fast-to-deploy solutions to help critical decision makers get the information they require is the lighter-than-air Tactical Maritime Aerostat. These battle-tested systems are loaded with the latest ISR technology that can be used to monitor and gather intelligence from a highly reliable platform hovering over strategic points and providing an “eye in the sky” for concerned governments.

TCOM 17M at San Diego Naval Base. (Image courtesy of TCOM LP)
TCOM 17M at San Diego Naval Base. (Image courtesy of TCOM LP)

Aerostat Attributes and Advantages

Aerostats offer persistent surveillance solutions that have unique advantages over traditional ground-based radar and onboard surveillance systems. For example, when naval vessels are moored or transiting port waters, they are subject to unique surveillance and security challenges. Threats such as small, fast moving boats are not easily detectable using traditional ship-mounted cameras or ground-based radar. Conversely, aerostat systems act as a “virtual fence” along coastlines, around vessels, or the port perimeter by providing continuous, real-time monitoring of activities from an aerial perspective. The system can detect threats at greater range and in the blind spots of traditional surface based sensors, providing security forces with more time to think, react, engage, and neutralize threats at a port.

Tactical Class Aerostat systems such as the 12M, 17M, 22M, and 28M are ideal for  maritime deployment, on land, or directly from a vessel at sea. These aerostats can be assembled and deployed in a very short period and manned by a minimal crew. This allows commanders to use the aerostat system in areas, or when escorting a High-Value Unit (HVU). The aerostat system can carry payloads including day/night EO/IR cameras, radars, communications relays, and electronic warfare packages. The aerostat can be deployed from the deck of a vessel or a static location such as a a dock or onshore mooring station. The larger size aerostat systems (22M, 28M) have greater capacity that allows the Operational Class systems to operate at higher altitudes for greater surveillance range while remaining aloft for up to two weeks at a time, ensuring round-the-clock persistent surveillance for highly trafficked areas and maritime borders.

A TCOM 22M payload. (Image courtesy of TCOM)
A TCOM 22M payload. (Image courtesy of TCOM LP)

As South China Sea claimants consider different monitoring options, aerostat systems offer several key competitive advantages over other platforms. The first is cost. Aerostat systems require comparably minimal maintenance, resulting in an exceptionally low hourly operational cost. This allows users to obtain highly accurate, real-time surveillance data, at a remarkably low total cost of ownership. Secondly, aerostat systems are capable of being on station for weeks at a time. This ensures that there are fewer lapses in coverage due to refueling or unexpected mechanical issues. Third and perhaps most importantly, aerostats payloads are easily reconfigurable allowing the platform to be retrofitted to accommodate the latest ISR technologies in ‘minutes’ compared to ‘months’ and without the need to re-qualify the airframe for safety of flight. For example, aerostat systems could function as a versatile platform for ISR payloads, including electro-optical/infrared cameras, radar, video, communications relays, and even cellular data and Wi-Fi. Operators can easily swap out a broad variety of actionable surveillance data and communications options to meet different missions using the aerostat system’s rapidly reconfigurable “Plug and Play” architecture. Aerostats are highly resilient and suited for harsh operating conditions. Due to the inert nature of Helium gas with which the aerostat is inflated, aerostat systems do not combust and are highly durable in flight. The proof is in the battlefield. For example, aerostat systems deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan during combat have been documented to remain aloft and functional even after being hit by direct gunfire. The low pressure within the aerostat hull allows the system to stay aloft even when punctured.

Aerostats systems have the payload size, weight and power capacity to support high-performance radars that can detect aircraft operating well beyond the coverage of ground-based radars. With an advanced maritime radar, a single sea surveillance system can track maritime targets at distances of 60 nautical miles and cover thousands of square miles for weeks at a time. In addition to the radar, the aerostat can simultaneously support passive surveillance payloads like COMINT, SIGINT, and ELINT, thermal imaging and optical sensors, as well as communications payloads at the lowest possible hourly cost for an airborne asset. The early detection and direct communications with air and sea assets afford the critical window of time to evaluate the situation, coordinate forces, and engage.

How does it work? Consider the scenario of a crowded port environment where many ships and small craft are transiting through highly congested waterways. A naval vessel enters a port but is limited to using surveillance equipment that looks outward from the deck level. There may also be ground-based equipment on shore. Together these systems are unable to see all the critical activity at the water level. A low, fast moving boat  quickly approaches a larger vessel undetected by traditional methods. This scenario occurred in 2000 with the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. Aerostat system monitoring the entire port area from hundreds or thousands of feet above would provide early warning to the larger vessel, allowing for a timely reaction. The system could have provided actionable intelligence that allowed for a greater window of time for forces to intercept or engage. 

aerostat 3
Difference in coverage between aerostat based radar and coastal, ground-based radar. (Image courtesy of TCOM LP)

Operational Track Record

Aerostats provide a highly beneficial secondary function.  Any increase in effectiveness of supported troops is very quickly attributed to the aerostats and significantly modifies threat behaviors while the system is in flight. As this effect applies in the case of land applications, U.S. forces at Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) were often assaulted by lone insurgents, and improved explosive devices were placed just outside normal observation areas. Invariably, the deployment of aerostats to the FOBs saw an immediate increase in allied counterstrikes. Within a short amount of time, local leadership would find that enemy operations had relocated entirely or were curtailed exclusively to times when the aerostat was not flying.

Within the maritime domain, this same effect was found to be true for counter narcotics operations in the Caribbean Sea. Additionally, aerostats have proven highly effective at monitoring migrant vessels and providing cues to rescue operations when necessary.

Just like the best engineered automobiles or aircraft, aerostats are not perfect. They need to be tested and designed to meet specific field conditions and payloads. Additionally, operators must be well trained to to achieve maximum effectiveness. In contradiction to some, apparently uninformed media reports , history clearly shows that aerostats are highly reliable. Moreover, they have been and are still successfully used around the world in regional conflict zones such as the Middle East, Afghanistan, the Indian sub-continent, North America, and soon to be in Southeast Asia. With a proven track record of 45 years with millions of airborne hours of persistent surveillance in austere environments, aerostats are here to stay and are growing as innovators continue to find new uses for this reliable lighter-than-air platform. 

Conclusion

As government decision makers consider using a multi-mode surveillance approach, aerostats stand out in their potential to serve as eyes in the sky in the South China Sea and other maritime regions that have been immersed in perceived threats and real conflict. They are easy to deploy, operate in multiple environments, are efficient and technology-agnostic. Aerostat systems need little time to deploy and have lower maintenance requirements at a substantially lower hourly operational cost than conventional aircraft and drones. Moreover, aerostats offers a combination of wide viewing angles and high resolution for more precise identification of small objects as well as surveillance of larger areas. In short, aerostats enable true persistent, real-time tactical ISR at an affordable cost.

Matt McNiel is Vice President of TCOM, LP, a global ISR solutions provider of Lighter-Than-Air Persistent Surveillance Tethered Aerostat platforms for Air, Maritime and Land. He can be reached at Media@Tcomlp.com.

Featured Image courtesy of TCOM LP. 

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