Blackwater looks to meet ISR needs
By Michael Hoffman - Staff writer
Posted : Saturday Jul 19, 2008 7:59:31 EDT
To match its light transport aviation arm, Blackwater Worldwide has spent two years trying to bust into the unmanned aerial vehicle realm with its Polar 400 airships.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates described the appetite for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance collection, including full-motion video from UAVs, as “insatiable.”
But the Army and Air Force can’t seem to keep up as Gates described getting the military to provide more airborne ISR as “pulling teeth,” even though the number of Predator orbits — or continuous 24-hour patrols —have doubled in theater since last year.
Much like the Army needing help — hence Blackwater’s former Navy Seals providing private security details — the ISR gap is growing and Blackwater is ready to pounce.
Although still in development, Blackwater’s new airships can fly twice as long as Air Force Predators and operate at one-fifth the cost, said Blackwater Worldwide CEO Erik Prince. The 170-foot airships are slow and won’t fire Hellfire missiles like the Predators and Reapers, but it can carry the ISR sensors in high demand.
Blackwater has already spoken with Defense Department organizations and other nations about purchasing the airship’s services, said Alan Ram, director of production and business development for Blackwater Airships.
Prince compared his company’s airship to an F-150 pickup where nations could plug in their sensors, including forward looking infrared sensor balls, cell phone intercept boxes, radio repeaters and synthetic aperture radars.
“The government would put their own sensors on the airship, and they could run all the sensors,” Prince said.
Blackwater hasn’t decided how it will contract out the airship, but Prince said his company is leaning toward flying the airships and then charging for coverage by the hour.
“Our model will not necessarily be to sell it but to provide the service turnkey so the military doesn’t have to stand up a whole new squadron to run blimps,” Prince said.
In the past, airships have proven ineffective because they were susceptible to weather, especially high winds, Ram said. Blackwater designed a propulsion system so the pilot can control the airship on all three axes, he said.
The airship can travel at a top speed of 50 knots, restricting it from effectively responding to quick-reaction requirements like a ground unit taking enemy fire 40 miles away. But it can hover over 10 city blocks and keep a watchful eye for up to 60 hours depending on the airship’s altitude, Ram said.
Prince also suggested his airships could replace Predators flying drug and alien interdiction missions over the U.S-Mexico border and the Caribbean. He proposed using one ship as a “lily-pad” and launching three to four airships to form a chain.
But Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., told Air Force Times that she would not support such a chain, saying it would only extend a disturbing trend of handing national security over to private companies.
“Now we’re talking about a private, for-profit company having grandiose notions of replacing the Coast Guard and the Navy,” she said. “I think that’s very dangerous.”
Tom Ehrhard, a retired Air Force colonel and fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said he isn’t surprised Blackwater is expanding into UAVs.
“It only highlights the dramatic increase of importance for ISR since 9/11,” he said.
“They recognize there is a great need for it just like the military. Their guys have been hit by [improvised explosive devices] just like our guys.”
Bear claw in the sky.