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The Military Technology

High-Tech Blimps Earning Their Wings 200

Posted by samzenpus
from the truly-goodyear dept.
coondoggie writes "The US Army this week showed off its latest high-tech blimp laden with powerful radar systems capable of detecting incoming threats 340 miles away. The helium-filled blimps, or aerostats, are designed to hover over war zones or high-security areas and be on guard for incoming missiles or other threats. The Army wants them to reduce some of the need for manned and unmanned reconnaissance flights. The aerostat demonstrated this week is known as the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Sensor System (JLENS), which is designed to fly up to an altitude of 10,000 feet. According to GlobalSecurity.org., the $1.4 billion JLENS is a large, unpowered elevated sensor moored to the ground by a long cable. From its position above the battlefield, the elevated sensors will allow incoming cruise missiles to be detected, tracked, and engaged by surface-based air defense systems even before the targets can be seen by the systems."
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High-Tech Blimps Earning Their Wings

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  • blimps (Score:2, Funny)

    by buswolley (591500)
    I know they lose brain matter an all..but now they're floating?
    • by buswolley (591500)
      I don't do anonymous for surface trolls I troll anonymously when I'm serious.

      Even so I'll stand by my troll ha ha ha :)

  • Even after reading the article, it doesnt specify if that is per unit or the total cost of all the systems, including r&d. It says they are less expensive to buy and operate than comparable fixed-wing aircraft so I am hoping that is the total.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by danwesnor (896499)
      It's going to be either total life cycle costs (requirements, development, manufacturing, operations/maintenance and disposal) or costs through proof-of-concept or LRIP (low-rate initial production). I don't think SMDC's total budget is $1.4B/year. The military budgets programs for total life-cycle if they know it's going to be fielded, or through the expected milestone decision if it's a tech demo that could potentially be fielded. That's why the costs of fighter jets jumped from $20M each to $200M each
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by ralewi1 (919193)
        I second the opinion that the $1.4B is for proof-of-concept. Reuters reported [reuters.com] that the contract was for the System Design and Demonstration phase of the contract, with which the Army buys two orbits of two aerostats (likely engineering design models) for testing and evaluation.

        Regarding the aerostats floating over Iraq and Afghanistan now, these are likely the Persistent Threat Detection System [lockheedmartin.com].
    • Even after reading the article, it doesnt specify if that is per unit or the total cost of all the systems, including r&d. It says they are less expensive to buy and operate than comparable fixed-wing aircraft so I am hoping that is the total.

      Yes. $1.4Big is a lot of balloon, especially when you can inflate it directly from Washington and get the hot air free (grin).

      It's most likely the cost of the entire programme, and simply administering the deployment will cost big bucks. Figure you'll have quite a few of these things, even if it's as few as (say) 10,000 units, you have to tie in with logistics to package and deliver them, train people on their use, worry about spares and repair and system upgrades, and of course -- the "hot air". Which

  • Blimps (Score:3, Interesting)

    by proudfoot (1096177) on Wednesday August 26, 2009 @08:40PM (#29210755)
    Isn't it kind of easy to shoot down blimps? Can't anything a blimp does be better done with a satellite or a loitering drone?
    • Re:Blimps (Score:4, Informative)

      by Dr. Eggman (932300) on Wednesday August 26, 2009 @08:43PM (#29210791)
      At 10,000 ft, eh maybe. But blimps are cheaper and use less fuel to stay up there.
      • by Kratisto (1080113)
        Hell, at 10,000ft most firearms won't make the trip. Hopefully, these things are orders of magnitude cheaper to produce, as well. It would be advantageous to cover a battlefield in hundreds of cheap sensors communicating to provide a comprehensive image, rather than sending up one or two UAV's to scan the area with a limited perspective for the same price.
        • by wfstanle (1188751) on Wednesday August 26, 2009 @09:11PM (#29211035)

          I hate to pop your balloon (pun intended) but 10,000 feet is not that high. In World War 2 the Germans had anti-aircraft guns that could easily get to much over 20,000 feet. Many cheap modern shoulder held anti-aircraft missiles can easily shoot this high and a blimp would be easy to hit. It might be safe from small arms fire but a few small holes wouldn't hurt it much. An anti-aircraft missile is another matter.

          • by Drakonik (1193977)

            So....you're saying that the aircraft is going to be vulnerable to anti-aircraft missiles. Stop the presses.

            Really. If the blimp can be built cheaper than an airplane/UAV, and cover loads more area, then it getting shot down would be unpleasant, but a loss less expensive than losing a plane, its fuel, its weapon payload, its pilot, and so on.

            • So....you're saying that the aircraft is going to be vulnerable to anti-aircraft missiles. Stop the presses.

              Really. If the blimp can be built cheaper than an airplane/UAV, and cover loads more area, then it getting shot down would be unpleasant, but a loss less expensive than losing a plane, its fuel, its weapon payload, its pilot, and so on.

              And if the blimp is cheaper than the anti aircraft missiles you might have a net benefit right there.

            • by wfstanle (1188751)

              You are forgetting something... The estimated cost of 1.4 billion! How many blimps are we talking about? Knowing the military, not very many. Even if 1,000 blimps are built we are talking about 1.4 million.

          • by c6gunner (950153) on Wednesday August 26, 2009 @09:30PM (#29211155)

            In World War 2 the Germans had anti-aircraft guns that could easily get to much over 20,000 feet

            Well, yes, artillery is referred to as "guns", but that's a bit misleading, don't you think? If the bad guys have managed to move artillery pieces that close to your base of operations, you've got bigger problems than whether or not your blimp gets shot down.

            Many cheap modern shoulder held anti-aircraft missiles can easily shoot this high and a blimp would be easy to hit

            Yeah, most modern shoulder-launched ground-to-air missiles could get a lock at that range, but most of these missiles also use infrared guidance. Would a blimp give off enough of a heat signature for a lock?

            • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

              by students (763488)

              But the blimp is for missile defense. What sort of adversary would have missiles but no antiaircraft guns? As for closeness, all sorts of weapons are more easily smuggled on the surface than launched by missiles, so missile defense is pretty futile.

              • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

                by jandrese (485)
                And yet people keep using missiles, even though they're "useless" compared to smuggling. Why do you think this is? Is smuggling perhaps harder than you think, especially into fortified compounds like military bases or Israel?

                Plus, there is the risk factor in smuggling. If you are caught, often the agent will be caught alive and may give away secrets. Rockets don't do that, you launch one from the roof of an orphanage and then drive off before the rocket even hits the ground. Even if someone does sp
            • by Frogbert (589961)

              Furthermore, even if you could shoot it down with a ground to air missile, how much would one missile cost and how much would the blimp cost? Something tells me they could build 10 blimps for the price of missile.

              • by Entropius (188861)

                Shoulder-launched AA missiles are pretty cheap -- we're not talking about the serious SAM's used to shoot down jets, but the dinky little things that we gave Bin Laden to shoot down Soviet helicopters.

                • by j_sp_r (656354)

                  But the bad guys don't have loads of them, and shooting down a stupid blimp doesn't give them jihad-credits.

                • by c6gunner (950153)

                  we're not talking about the serious SAM's used to shoot down jets, but the dinky little things that we gave Bin Laden to shoot down Soviet helicopters

                  Leaving aside the silly Bin Laden comment (do you get ALL your information from Michael Moore?), the US supplied the Mujahadeen with Stinger missile systems, which aren't exactly "dinky". And they cost about $40,000 a piece.

                  • by Entropius (188861)

                    No, I didn't get that information from Michael Moore -- that's part of the historical record. Obvious troll is obvious. Let me guess -- you're not an American. Israeli?

                    And they're dinky compared to other AA missiles. $40,000 is "dinky" in modern warfare.

                    • by c6gunner (950153)

                      that's part of the historical record

                      I think you misspelled "shit I pulled out of my ass". But what the hell - let's see you list just one credible source which shows that Osama Bin Laden received funding from the US. If you can do it, you'll be the first.

                      Go on, I'll wait.

                      Let me guess -- you're not an American. Israeli?

                      That's right, anyone who questions your made-up version of history is either an American or a Dirty Stinking Jew, eh? Let me guess ... most of your shirts are brown, right?

                      And they're dinky

          • I hate to pop your balloon (pun intended) but 10,000 feet is not that high. In World War 2 the Germans had anti-aircraft guns that could easily get to much over 20,000 feet. Many cheap modern shoulder held anti-aircraft missiles can easily shoot this high and a blimp would be easy to hit. It might be safe from small arms fire but a few small holes wouldn't hurt it much. An anti-aircraft missile is another matter.

            True.
            Blimpin' ain't easy.

          • by kinnell (607819)

            I hate to pop your balloon (pun intended) but 10,000 feet is not that high. In World War 2 the Germans had anti-aircraft guns that could easily get to much over 20,000 feet. Many cheap modern shoulder held anti-aircraft missiles can easily shoot this high and a blimp would be easy to hit. It might be safe from small arms fire but a few small holes wouldn't hurt it much. An anti-aircraft missile is another matter.

            That's hardly relevant though. This is a stand-off radar platform which will be tethered well inside friendly territory and have a range of over 300 miles. If the enemy get anywhere near close enough to shoot this down with anything other than an aircraft or cruise missile, losing a blimp will be the least of your problems.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Jason.Jung (1007145)
      It's extremely easy to shoot one of those down. The Taliban when I was in Afghanistan were great at knocking those out of the sky within days of actually figuring out they couldn't eat their brains. No joke. It seriously scared the shit out of them.
    • Re:Blimps (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Sebilrazen (870600) <blahsebilrazen@blah.com> on Wednesday August 26, 2009 @08:51PM (#29210867)
      Clouds mess with a satellite and you're limited to the window it's over that area of the planet. Loitering drones use lots of fuel to stay aloft because they need to keep flying. A blimp just needs to ascend to elevation, vent some of the lift gas, and float - using small fans for positioning.
    • by mikael (484)

      The blimp has a radar system that allows it to detect all flying objects (missiles, airplanes, rockets) before they reach it - that eliminates the danger from radar sensitive missiles. Since it isn't metal and doesn't have any heat sources, radar guided and heat guided missiles aren't going to be much use.

      • I'm guessing that, while it probably puts out rather less an a conventional aircraft engine, you aren't going to get a big radar array running with zero IR signature...
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Entropius (188861)

        The thing is huge and doesn't move, making the guidance task of whatever you shoot at it very easy.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by jklovanc (1603149)

      There are no satellites in orbit that can do this job right now. To put new one up would cost quite a bit more.

      A drone with enough radar power to do the job would be called an E-3. This requires huge airports and infrastructure to support.

    • by Chemisor (97276)

      Back during World War I, the Germans used hot air balloons as artillery spotters. One of the major jobs for airplanes in those days was shooting them down. Of course, since they couldn't fly all that high (or all that well), they were quite vulnerable to anti-aircraft guns. And, then there was the Red Baron and his flying circus...

  • Overpriced (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Angst Badger (8636)

    $1.4 billion dollars? We are talking about what is basically a balloon with an instrument package slung beneath it, aren't we? I don't know about you, but I'd be willing to bet that if the purchaser was anyone but the Pentagon, the price would be at least an order of magnitude lower.

    • Re:Overpriced (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Ironsides (739422) on Wednesday August 26, 2009 @09:10PM (#29211017) Homepage Journal
      Consider that price includes development (not just construction), and that to power the radar you're going to need a multi-kilowatt power source that will last for as long as the blimp is in the air, without refueling.
      • I am considering that. Excepting the blimp itself and whatever aerodynamic controls are involved, everything else can -- or could be -- sourced from off-the-shelf parts. And since the device is tethered, the power source could be on the ground.

        Whether it's a good idea to build a platform so vulnerable to such a wide variety of low-tech, improvised attack vectors is another question altogether.

        • by Ironsides (739422)
          Off the shelf wouldn't survive one month. Read up on the military environmental requirements. Start with MIL-STD-810. Also, since when is Radar off the shelf?
      • Or, since the article pointed out that it would be tethered to the ground, you just combine the tether and the power. 10,000 ft is a fairly long distance, but it should be doable. Provided the power-cord tether weights about the same as a kevlar tether + onboard power supply, it'd be foolish not to do it this way. If you can pump power up there from the ground, it never has to come down.

    • Sure, but they're not just paying for the defense, they're paying for the sticker, for the -status- that a Rayethon brings. You cruise around in a lockeed blimp, people ignore you. They see "Raytheon JLENS" and they want to know who you are, the valet makes sure not to scratch the doors.

      In seriousness, it looks like raytheon built them. Their wiki page on them lists several controversies [wikipedia.org] that seem pretty typical of the industry [wikipedia.org].

      Another blurb on JLENS I found (http://defense-update.com/products/j/jlens.ht

    • by markk (35828) on Wednesday August 26, 2009 @09:41PM (#29211261)

      That billion dollar price includes the communication system between the aerostats radar and the targeting radar of other systems like anti-aircraft missile systems. So it is a very misleading number. I would guess the "blimp" or really aerostat part is less than 5% of the total cost. This is really an integrated detector system that happens to use a blimp as one of its inputs.

    • by timeOday (582209)
      That appears to be the entire program cost: "Long term acquisition requirements call for 12 complete systems at an estimated value of $1.6 billion." So, yeah, each one is almost exactly an order of magnitude cheaper than you are thinking.

      I know the Pentagon pays quite a bit for stuff, but even the B2 Stealth Bomber are less than a billion per copy.

      • by wfstanle (1188751)

        "even the B2 Stealth Bomber are less than a billion per copy."

        When you add in the entire costs of the B2 system it costs about 2 billion each.

  • Yet it still can't detect the low-tech truck bomb or suicide bomber that is the biggest current threat.

  • by erroneus (253617) on Wednesday August 26, 2009 @09:31PM (#29211157) Homepage

    I saw this thing the other day about the Hindenburg and how it wasn't burning hydrogen that the world saw, but rather it was the doping compound used on the outside of the airship. Turns out the majority ingredients used in the compound are the same ones we use today... in solid rocket boosters! (The 3rd Reich knew about it back then but blamed the use of hydrogen to save face.)

    Hydrogen is lighter and is easier and cheaper to create. So I have to wonder why it's not being used.

    • by RobVB (1566105) on Wednesday August 26, 2009 @09:42PM (#29211277)

      This page [www.zyra.tv], despite the horrible colors, does a pretty good job of explaining why helium is used instead of hydrogen.

      The main reason to use helium is that hydrogen is indeed flammable, even though it may not have caused the fire on the Hindenburg, it's still highly reactive to oxygen.

      From the link:

      Hydrogen (atomic weight 1, but exists as pairs of atoms (diatomic), molecular weight 2), should weigh 2g per 24 litres at room temperature, whereas Helium (exists as lone atoms (monatomic), atomic weight 4), should weigh 4g per 24 litres at room temperature. But the mistake is to think that this would automatically make it float twice as buoyantly. The fact that's important is not the weight of the gas in the balloon, but the weight of the air which it displaces.

      [...]

      Both Hydrogen and Helium weigh almost nothing for the purposes of buoyancy in air. In contrast, air is mainly nitrogen, as pairs of atoms, which has a weight of about 28g per 24 litres at room temperature. To put some figures on it, a 24 litre helium balloon would seem to weigh 4g minus 28g = minus 24g in air. In comparison a 24 litre hydrogen balloon would seem to weigh 2g minus 28g = minus 26g in air. -24g or -26g, take your pick? The difference is about 8%.

      So basically, you're either flying a safe blimp, or a giant bomb with 8% better buoyancy.

      • by syousef (465911)

        So basically, you're either flying a safe blimp, or a giant bomb with 8% better buoyancy.

        Which is probably only unacceptable if it's a manned blimp.

      • by jandrese (485)
        Eventually we'll probably have to look into Hydrogen again, but only because Helium is a non-renewable resource on Earth and is already getting somewhat tight on supply. The safety issue is going to be a big problem no matter what you do though.
    • Adding to the above post, hydrogen is much harder to keep contained over He. After all, it's just a proton.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Tweenk (1274968)

      Hydrogen is not actually much lighter than helium. What matters is not the molar mass, but the difference between the molar mass and the average mass of air - this is what generates buoyancy. Hydrogen is 2 g/mol, helium 4 g/mol, air approximately 29 g/mol (it is a mixture, so that's the average value). Ths means that 1 mol (about 22,4 l) of helium will lift 25 g, and 1 mol of hydrogen - 27 g. Therefore hydrogen is only 8% better than helium.

    • by lawpoop (604919)
      I have heard it's because it's a smaller molecule and therefore escapes easier. More of it just aspirates through the skin of the bag, so to speak, than does helium. IANAChemist.
  • by students (763488) on Wednesday August 26, 2009 @09:34PM (#29211183) Homepage Journal

    The amount of Helium on the Earth is very small (though there is lots in space). Helium is needed for medical MRIs and scientific research, but we are going to run out in a few decades. My lab is already suffering from increased Helium prices. Helium has a nasty way of escaping from containers (we're only able to recycle about a third of what we use), so these blimps are likely to waste a lot. Just like the rest of the missile defense systems, they'll never be used for their intended purpose.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Locke2005 (849178)
      Using Helium in the blimp really is a big mistake... most of it will be wasted by GIs taking hits off it so they can talk like Donald Duck! On the other hand, hydrogen is extremely abundant and lighter, so it should be used instead. Regardless of what it is filled with, this thing is a sitting duck and when it gets hit it is going down. It should automatically jettison the payload and parachute it down, while the gas bag itself should be cheap and disposable. The fact that things burn quicker in a hydrogen
    • I eagerly await somebody's explanation of how the Free Market will conjure up a substitute...(for a lot of things, sure, for a particular element with a rather useful set of properties, that forms very slowly in the company of alpha-emitters and has a penchant for escaping, not so much.)
      • Hot air balloon carrying a propane tank?
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by FooAtWFU (699187)

        If it's really that scarce non-renewable, people could make big bucks buying it now and storing it for a few decades. People right now either think that the price is fair --- (helium price now + cost of N decades helium storage + financing / opportunity costs) >= (helium price in future) --- or people are being stupid/oblivious to opportunity.

        Perhaps you and your finance buddies should get a helium futures ETF started? It's a commodity play, and people are worried about inflation in the next few year

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by timeOday (582209)
          There was already a bubble in the helium futures market. It didn't exactly burst, it just floated away...
        • by students (763488)

          My understanding is that the Helium market is already cornered. This is because Helium extraction was developed for World War II airships. The US government has a strategic reserve, but they are selling it.

        • by rwade (131726)

          You are assuming that market actors are rational. Of course they are not.

          Look at oil -- it is incredibly cheap for what it provides, totally non-renewable, and with no known substitute that can do the job for the price. If market actors were rational, they would be hoarding it.

          We have already hit the peak of oil production, only about 100 years after we started using it and demand is only going up...

          Same thing with helium.

          • by FooAtWFU (699187)

            no known substitute that can do the job for the price

            See, that's the thing: you're trying to hoard it for when it's more expensive... and when that happens, there are alternatives (ethanol, natural gas, electrical battery-power for cars (fueled by coal, or nuclear, mmmaybe even renewables if you go for that stuff and it's really expensive)... plant-based plastics for medicine, "less packaging" for the stuff in the grocery stores... recycling... plus any really-expensive-to-extract oil fields.

            Raise the p

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by evilWurst (96042)

        What comes to mind is that, as far as I know, we only use helium for three things... lighter-than-air stuff, as a neutral gas in very deep dive air tanks, and as a coolant for nifty medical and sciency devices. Part of the reason, IIRC, is that it's just that it's a relatively cheap byproduct of existing oil and natural gas mining. But we could just as easily use hydrogen for the lighter-than-air stuff and other gases or techniques for the coolants. I'm not so sure about the diving, but then, we use a hell

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by grrrl (110084)

          Liquid helium is pretty unique as a coolant - it boils at 3-4 K, and is needed to cool the core in superconducting magnets. Everything else has a much higher boiling temperature (quickly scanned off of wikip) - 20 K (hydrogen) 77 K (nitrogen) or 90 K (oxygen, paramagnetic - no good for superconducting magnets anyway).

          It's also pretty standard to measure well below 20 K - down to mK in some experiments - and you can't do this without sucking hard on LHe. I'm not an expert but I use LHe a lot and I don't know

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Seraphim1982 (813899)

        I eagerly await somebody's explanation of how the Free Market will conjure up a substitute...

        As the price of helium goes up it will become worth it tap more expensive supplies of helium, and people will use less of it. This is pretty basic free market economics.

        • by Rogerborg (306625)

          it will become worth it tap more expensive supplies of helium

          You know, it's that assumption that there must be an alternative supply of everything that's got us on the slippery slope back to the fucking stone age when the oil really does run out.

          • by Bluesman (104513)

            Yeah, instead, we should stop using oil immediately and we won't have that problem.

          • by gad_zuki! (70830)

            Well, there is. We are sitting in a sea of energy. Sure, oil is convenient now because you bought a car that runs on oil, but thats just a source of energy. You can get energy elsewhere.

      • by dkleinsc (563838)

        There's a substitute available: hydrogen. However, after a certain problem with the Hindenburg, they decided against using it in the future.

      • by LWATCDR (28044)

        Actually the free market will just make it profitable to start capturing it again.
        The price of Helium was artificially low for a very long time because the US government was paying for it to be captured and stored as a strategic material. Most of it comes from natural gas wells in West Texas where ti comes from... Alpha emitters.
        Yes we still may run out but right now I don't think we are actually capturing much of it.

    • by Stray7Xi (698337)

      Couldn't we always produce helium with fusion? Just because fusion hasn't produced power yet, doesn't mean it can't be used to produce elements.

  • ... the blimps will be seen from over 1000 miles, and the single high-altitude high-speed stealth anti-spy missile will say hello, shortly thereafter. ;)

    • by Asic Eng (193332)
      If you have a missile which can not be detected by the blimp, why not just use it to deliver the payload? Even if you destroy the blimp, the control center will still notice "oh our blimp is gone". Kinda gives away that you are attacking...
  • Wake me up when they bring back the Transatlantic Zeppelin flights. We already have a perfectly good mooring mast [stitchkingdom.com] in New York City.
    • by nschubach (922175)

      I'm anticipating those newfangled steam powered vehicles and trains that everyone is talking about. I mean, they run on water which is like 75% of the Earth's surface!

  • blimp laden (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward

    > latest high-tech blimp laden with

    > blimp laden

    > blimps laden with radars to find Osama Blimp Laden?

  • I had no idea (Score:3, Informative)

    by hyades1 (1149581) <hyades1@hotmail.com> on Thursday August 27, 2009 @02:38AM (#29212915)

    So except for the US, who has a huge cruise missile fleet that needs to be guarded against?

    • by Marcika (1003625)

      So except for the US, who has a huge cruise missile fleet that needs to be guarded against?

      Every other nuclear power of course; then there is Germany, Taiwan, Norway (NSM), Spain (Taurus), Korea (Hyunmoo) and Pakistan (Babur).

      None of them are current threats, but a scenario where Pakistan/China/Russia sells missiles or missile technology to a US adversary is not all that outlandish...

    • by LWATCDR (28044)

      Russia has a lot of Cruise Missiles as does China. Any country more advanced than Germany in 1944 can have a cruise missile.
      Rankly several other nations have them and they are not expensive of complex to make. A cruise missle is nothing but a small airplane with an auto pilot and a warhead. Any country that can make a drone can make a cruise missiles.
      Also just so you understand almost but not all anti ship missiles are cruise missiles.

  • Meltdown alert? Mad dog drill? Blimp attack? Ah... I think a good old-fashioned fire drill today.

  • So now the US military will float huge sitting ducks essential for battlefield command. Which enemies will immediately target. When the blimps pop, two mile long cables will lash the battlefied, thrashing to pieces the military, civilians and landscape helpless below.

    These things are like an unmanned trojan horse.

  • "From its position above the battlefield, the elevated sensors will allow incoming cruise missiles to be detected, tracked, and engaged by surface-based air defense systems even before the targets can be seen by the systems." -- I guess size... ups! I mean, detection range is really critical. If the enemy can detect the blimps before the blimps detect the enemy then a long-range enemy ground-to-air missile can easily bring the blimp down.

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