Border securityAerostats used along India-Pakistan border and in other hotspots

Published 27 April 2009

Unpowered blimps have been used for two decades now; the one aerostat Kuwait owned alerted its leadership to the Iraqi tanks rolling toward the border in 1990; India, Pakistan buy them to bolster their border security

India is buying two more Israeli EL/M-2083 Aerostat radars. Both India and Pakistan are using radar aerostats to fill in the many gaps in the radar coverage of their mutual border. India already has two EL/M-2083s. The United States is providing aerostats to Pakistan. India bought its first EL/M-2083s three years ago, and is planning to deploy a total of six. India needs a total of 13 to cover all its borders. StrategicPage reports that Pakistan is getting six L-88 Aerostat Systems. India’s decision to move ahead on its aerostat system is, in part, motivated by the success of LTTE rebels in Sri Lanka — before they were ruthlessly crushed by the Sri Lankan army — using single engine commercial aircraft to bomb military targets (without much success, but the potential of such low flying aircraft was demonstrated.) Last year’s terror attacks in Mumbai is another motivator, along with the demand that the northwest coast, near Pakistan, be more closely monitored.

Aerostat systems use a 100-250 foot long, helium filled, unmanned blimp equipped with radar and other sensors. The larger of these blimps are more than twice the size of the more familiar advertising blimps. An aerostat is designed to turn into the wind and stay in the same place. An aerostat is unpowered, and secured by a cable that can keep the aerostat in position at its maximum altitude of 15,000 feet. At that altitude, a large aerostat can carry a two ton payload. The cable also supplies power, which means the blimp can stay up for about thirty days at a time before it has to be brought down for maintenance on its radars. Often, two radars are carried. One is a surveillance radar, the other is a precision track and illumination radar (PTIR). The surveillance radar provides long-range coverage (about 500 kilometers for the EL/M-2083), while the PTIR, which is a steerable system capable of tracking multiple targets, can focus in on items of interest.

Aerostat systems cost varies from $5 million to more than $100 million each, depending on the size of the aerostat and the capabilities of the radar and other sensors. Aerostats work. Kuwait had one in 1990, and the ground radar spotted the Iraqis as soon as they crossed the border. The United States uses dozens of aerostat systems in Iraq and Afghanistan, to guard bases. The EL/M-2083 costs about $20 million each. Israel itself is using two of them, and has four more on order.