Old, New Technologies Come Together to Cast Large Shadow, Create Controversy

(c) K.B. Sherman, 2003

“Just one torpedo can ruin your whole day.”

“There are two kinds of ships: submarines and targets.”

– US Navy sayings

From anti-submarine warfare to anti-terrorism, it’s both a new and an old world for the US armed forces. The US Navy’s plan to test its Littoral Airborne Sensor - Hyperspectral (LASH) this fall aboard a P-3C and an H-60 aircraft in the Sea of Japan has North Korea growling even as US scientists see ever greater promise for the system of locating and identifying hidden targets. LASH is being tested for its ability to locate both targets submerged in shallow waters and land targets hidden by camouflage. In the test scheduled for the fall, according to USA Today, the Navy will seek to detect Japanese subs on patrol in the Sea of Japan but may also “inadvertently” detect those from North Korea or the PRC. Both Stalinist nations maintain large submarine forces that, although well behind current US standards, they could pose a significant risk to naval operations in the event of a war on the Korean Peninsula. The tests come at a time when Washington and Pyongyang are already locking horns over US demands that North Korea give up its nuclear bomb program. Talks were scheduled to begin on that and other matters in Beijing in late August or early September.

To date, LASH has spotted whales and submarines below the surface at sea and camouflaged simulated terrorist camps on land. Over the past 35 years the US Navy had pretty much gotten out of the shallow water ASW business, as Soviet Whiskey-class and Romeo-class diesel subs gave way to nuclear-powered Victors and Deltas. LASH is an attempt to perfect a new technology for shallow water ASW that does not rely upon acoustic detection – particularly difficult in shallow littoral areas where such problems as surface ducting, bottom bounce, and sea life noise make acoustic detection excruciating. Conversely, any technological advancement in sub detection is certain to be seen as a threat to such paranoid schizophrenic nations as North Korea and the PRC, which see any such development as another attempt by the US to create a first strike capability.

LASH is the product of the Government Systems Division of STI Industries, Inc. (Honolulu, HI), and unlike acoustic detection systems, relies upon reflected light to illuminate a target. Computers then process the images to distinguish shades of color in underwater or camouflaged objects that are not apparent to the human eye.

The planned test comes on the heels of one just finished and another now being conducted using a ghost from the past – an airship. According to Steve Huettse, Manager for the Airship Advanced Development Office of NAVAIR, the US military, and particularly the Navy, is very interested in the capabilities of airships – or more specifically, non-rigid blimps – to conduct patrol operations with LASH and other surveillance systems. The LASH-ASW system has already logged over 350 flight hours aboard heavier-than-air naval aircraft. The Littoral MCM Rapid Reconnaissance System (L-MCM RRS) mine detection system was first successfully demonstrated in the 2000 Fleet Battle Experiment (FBE) Hotel in Panama City, FL. LASH also supports search and rescue, littoral surveillance, and area spectral mapping.

Recently, NAVAIR and the Office of Naval Research conducted a test near Manassas, VA, in which a Skyship 600 blimp (Global Skyship Industries, Inc., Greenwich, CT) carried LASH against a simulated terrorist camp, where camouflaged small shelters were successfully detected although invisible to the naked eye. “LASH not only automatically detects a particular color, it also detects minor color variations in and under water, such as submarine hulls,” explained Huettse. For the blimp tests, a Navy crew is aboard to run the tactical gear. The US Navy has not flown a blimp in over 40 years, and no Navy blimp pilots – with their distinctive single-winged pins and tales of performing high-performance “bag-overs” -- remain on duty. The blimp and LASH were, in late August, enroute to San Diego for another set of tests, and , as Huettse noted, arrival time was expected “sometime in early September.” “Beyond the LASH system itself, we're trying to reintroduce the concept of using airships for both technical and economic reasons,” said Huettse. “[Blimps] can perform such missions at 25-30% the cost of a P-3 with unmatched on-station time. And right now, with the US burning-up its fixed- and rotary-wing assets [in the war on terrorism,] the blimp’s capabilities become even more attractive.”

In the San Diego test the Navy will be working with the US Coast Guard in a Joint Harbor Operations Center, in which anti-terrorism assets will be combined. Both LAST and high-resolution electro-optical systems will be combined aboard the blimp to provide data in real-time to both ship and ground assets. “This data will also be distributed on a web-based system so everyone can get real-time, hi-resolution information on demand: police, CG, Navy, border patrol, INS – everyone,” continued Huettse. "This provides homeland security and force protection for CONUS using one persistent airborne asset" disseminating this data. Using San Diego as an example, Huettse predicted that 24/7 coverage of the entire local water and land surface areas could be achieved using just 2 or 3 airships.

The vision is even more provocative. If put into practice, according to Huettse, these airships would have multiple hi-resolution systems, including LASH, EO, and radar and each system aboard a blimp could be controlled by a different agency: police watching border crossings; the Navy checking a boat too close to one of its ships; the CG checking another boat making a rendezvous 30 miles at sea. A hierarchy of use and sensors would be employed.

Also during the San Diego test, the Navy will try to launch and control a UAV from the Skyship blimp. The UAV, being faster than the blimp itself, will be tested as a platform for even more distributed sensors. This reporter inquired of Huettse about blimp self-defense issues, and while no specifics could yet be released, “bag” self-defense is reportedly being addressed.

Huettse noted that the Skyship 600 – at approximately 250,000 cubic feet of helium – is very small compared to the operational concept, in which blimps at least four times as large would be used (the ZPG-3W blimps built for Navy radar picket duty between 1958 and 1961 were 403 feet long and had a helium capacity of 1,516,300 cu ft).

As these programs come together, Huettse believes the Advanced Airship Development Office is likely to become a central point for all military lighter-than-air applications. The last time airships were considered by the Navy was in the mid-1980s, when a platform was sought to carry very large synthetic aperture radar for fleet defense against cruise missiles. However, a fire destroyed the test facility and the entire fleet of blimps (anyone know where the Air Force was that day?) and the project was abandoned.

While there is yet no timeframe or budget for purchasing or deploying blimps or LASH, LASH is being transitioned from ONR to NAVAIR. Meanwhile, development continues.

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