The skies over the Utah desert are becoming the test site for a new fleet of hulking high-tech dirigibles the U.S. military is hoping will provide battlefield commanders a bird's-eye view of cruise missiles and other threats.
One of the unmanned balloons — a 242-foot-long craft known as an aerostat — was launched Wednesday morning about 80 miles west of Salt Lake City. It stayed aloft for about three hours before it was pulled back down as planned.
It was the first several tests expected in the coming year or so in Utah, according to Paula Nicholson, a spokeswoman for Dugway Proving Ground. The next flights could be made later this week.
Vast tracts of military-owned desert were chosen for the testing because of their remoteness and resemblance to the mountainous, arid environment of Afghanistan, the military said in a statement.
The dirigibles are outfitted with radar and communications systems to provide long-range surveillance targeting threats from aircraft, ballistic and cruise missiles.
Waltham, Mass.-based Raytheon Co. was awarded a $1.4 billion contract from the Army in 2007 to design, build and test the aerostats.
Several more tests are proposed for Utah later in the year, including over the remote northern portion of the Great Salt Lake and parts of the Snake Valley.
The aerostats were first flight-tested in Elizabeth City, N.C., 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 is restricted up to 58,000 feet, the military said. The dirigibles are tethered to processing stations on the ground, and each is capable of staying aloft for a month.
They don't need an airstrip to launch and could even be tethered to ships at sea.
Officials said the aerostats will be less expensive to maintain and operate than conventional aircraft-based radar while providing battlefield commanders a bird's-eye view of threats in a given area.
"Not only will it expand the view well over the horizon, but do so at the least cost to the taxpayer. This is a critically needed capability as we continue to prosecute the global war on terrorism," Col. William E. King IV, Dugway's commander, said in a statement.
The program is known formally as the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS.
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