SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - The U.S. military has begun testing massive high-tech dirigibles-- designed to provide battlefield commanders with a bird's-eyeview of cruise missiles or other threats -- in the skies over theUtah desert.
Two unmanned 233-foot-long balloons were launched Wednesdaymorning about 80 miles west of Salt Lake City. Vast tracts ofmilitary-owned desert were chosen for the testing because of theirremoteness and resemblance to the mountainous, arid environment ofAfghanistan, the military said in a statement.
Known as aerostats, the dirigibles are outfitted with radar andcommunications systems to provide long-range surveillance targetingthreats from aircraft, ballistic and cruise missiles.
Waltham, Mass.-based Raytheon Co. was awarded a $1.4 billioncontract from the Army in 2007 to design, build and test theaerostats.
Several more tests are proposed for Utah later in the year,including over the remote northern portion of the Great Salt Lakeand parts of the Snake Valley.
The aerostats were first flight-tested in Elizabeth City, N.J.,last summer but were limited to a height of 3,000 feet. In Utah,the dirigibles are expected to fly some 10,000 feet above the U.S.Air Force's Utah Test and Training Range, where air space isrestricted up to 58,000 feet, the military said. The dirigibles aretethered to processing stations on the ground, and each is capableof staying aloft for a month.
Officials said the aerostats will be less expensive to maintainand operate than conventional aircraft-based radar while providingbattlefield commanders a bird's-eye view of threats in a givenarea.
"Not only will it expand the view well over the horizon, but doso at least cost to the taxpayer. This is a critically neededcapability as we continue to prosecute the global war onterrorism," Col. William E. King IV, Dugway's commander, said in astatement.
The program is known formally as the Joint Land Attack CruiseMissile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS.
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