Chinese See Intel, Surveillance Role for Airships
BY WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — Chinese academic, commercial and military institutions are aggressively studying the use of lighter-than-air (LTA) platforms for a variety of missions, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, special operations, transportation over rugged terrain and as communications relays.
A recent unclassified report issued by the U.S. National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC), “Current and Potential Applications of Chinese Aerostats (Airships),” addresses these issues.
Issued March 23 by NASIC’s Open Source Intelligence Analysis and Production Flight, the paper is the first known unclassified report on China’s military LTA research.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is looking at the development of airships and aerostats for a variety of military missions, said Richard Fisher, vice president of the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center. The PLA already uses aerostats for ground force exercises.
“The implication is that the PLA has radar that could perform ground mapping as well as air-search missions,” he said.
Though efforts have so far involved small platforms, the PLA is funding development of larger aerostats and airships able to operate at strategic altitudes of 10,000 meters or higher, which would allow surveillance of Taiwan from China, he said.
“For the PLA, having a networked formation of large airships over the East China Sea or South China Sea could offer the potential of an innerspace satellite system that could operate for a week at a time, conducting a range of surveillance, navigation assistance and communication relay missions, especially useful should an adversary attack China’s outer-space satellites,” he said.
The NASIC report concurs. China is considering the use of “super-altitude airships” for early warning detection to supplement existing early warning networks. Normally an altitude of 15 kilometers and higher is considered “super altitude,” the report said.
“More Chinese scientists and researchers have become engaged in airship research, especially in the area of military applications,” the NASIC report said.
“Because of its vertical takeoff and landing, and fixed-point air stationary capabilities, load capacity, low noise and low energy consumption, it is cost-effective and is very valuable for reconnaissance and surveillance, emergency communications,” the report said.
Defense News found more than 30 Chinese academic, corporate and military institutions and facilities on the Internet conducting research on LTAs, including the Aircraft Flight Test Technology Institute, Air Force Engineering University, Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Beijing Institute of Space Mechanics and Electricity, Beijing University, Donghua University, Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, National University of Defense Technology, Unit 94362 and Unit 94201 of the PLA in Shandong, and Wuhan Huazhong University of Science and Technology.
Chinese companies producing airships and aerostats are openly promoting them as surveillance and special operations platforms on company brochures and on their websites.
The Suzhou Fangzhou Aeromodeling Co. produces an “investigative security surveillance airship” for use by the police or the military. The Hua Jiao Airship Co. makes the HJ-3000 airship that it advertises as a surveillance, minesweeper and special operations platform.
“Equipped with special facilities, it can carry special military forces to fight against terrorists, riots, forest fires and hostage rescue,” the company Web site said.
The Beijing Buaa Lonsan Aircraft Co. produces the LS-S900 airship for use as a surveillance platform. It can be equipped with a camera, infrared thermal imaging unit, radar and a signal relay.
The Aerospace Life-Support Industries Co, produces the FKY-1, which can handle small missions of up to four personnel and carry a variety of sensor payloads.
Not to be confused with the FKY-1, the Chinese Academy of Surveying and China Special Vehicle Research Institute developed the FKC-1 helium unmanned airship with a “practical ceiling” of 1,000-plus meters and capable of surveillance missions by the military or police, in particular for “counter-separatist” campaigns, Fisher said.
“A poster at the 2008 Zhuhai Air Show illustrated this airship conducting battlefield surveillance as part of a network of unmanned aircraft and unmanned helicopters,” he said. The company has released Internet imagery of the FKC-2, roughly 30 percent larger, but without any performance data listed.
The NASIC report notes there are increased calls in China calls for greater research and development of LTAs in the future.
“The Chinese will have an important opportunity for their airships to be on par with international standards in 2010 or 2020.”