SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Proving the capability of high-tech military balloons willrequire buzzing drones, jets and an occasional unarmedsurface-to-air missile.
Most of the tests will be conducted in military air space abovethe Snake Valley in Utah during the next several years. Some testflights are scheduled over the northern part of Great SaltLake.
The military held a series of public meetings this week aboutthe project.
The work is an effort to prove the abilities of unmannedradar-bearing dirigibles -- known as aerostats -- to give fieldcommanders a bird's-eye view of cruise missiles and otherthreats.
Balloons have been used for military surveillance in the U.S. atleast since the Civil War. Today's version uses the same basicconcept -- tethered balloons flown high to provide intelligence totroops on the ground -- but with a few high-tech additions.
From more than a mile above the ground, radar-equipped aerostatswill provide sweeping 360-degree views of the landscape for morethan 100 miles.
The information will be fed to a ground station and quicklyintegrated into battlefield decisions, the military said.
"It's a great mix of old and new technologies," said Lt. Col.Steve Willhelm, manager of the program known as the Joint LandAttack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System.
The aerostats, which are 242 feet long, were flight-tested inNorth Carolina last year but limited to a height of 3,000 feet.
The program moves to western Utah where Dugway Proving Groundand the Utah Test and Training Range provide nearly 4,000 squaremiles of remote, sparsely populated landscape. There's alsorestricted military airspace up to 58,000 feet.
The military plans to fly the helium-filled airships up to10,000 feet above the ground.
The first Utah flight was conducted earlier this month about 80miles west of Salt Lake City. The more intensive tests will getunder way in March 2011 and last through the end of 2013.
To test the radar capabilities, the military plans to fly up to50 drone missions as well as tow targets behind jets.
The military plans up to six live-fire intercepts of drones overSnake Valley.
It said ground-fired missiles won't have warheads, and thedrones will break up upon contact and fall to the ground. Theexercises will be done at Dugway in an area already used fortraining operations, the military said.
"We're not going to be do anything that's unsafe out there,"Willhelm said.
The dirigibles are tethered to processing stations on theground, with each aircraft capable of staying aloft for amonth.
Officials said the aerostats will be less expensive to maintainand operate than conventional aircraft-based radar while providingbattlefield commanders a comprehensive aerial view of threats.
They'll be particularly important for picking up cruisemissiles, which fly low and slow, Willhelm said.
Raytheon Co., based in Waltham, Mass., was awarded thedevelopment contract for the system.
The military's environmental review of the Snake Valley testspredicts only negligible impacts on wildlife, air quality and othernatural resources. A similar review for operations above Great SaltLake has not been completed.
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