Pentagon plans to build giant spy zeppelin

Picture 1-10 Described as a cross between a satellite and a spy plane, the Pentagon is going to spend $400 million to make a 450-foot dirigible "that will float 65,000 feet above the Earth for 10 years, providing unblinking and intricate radar surveillance of the vehicles, planes and even people below."


  1. 65,000 feet is within or pretty darn close to the max operating ceiling for combat aircraft… doesn’t that open the thing up to being shot down rather easily? I can’t imagine a Zeppelin is terribly hard to hit.

  2. “… that will float 65,000 feet above the Earth for 10 years, providing…” a really slow moving target and 1ots of time to hit it.

  3. @ #4: I don’t imagine these suckers move to fast either. Sort of the equivalent of the WWI trick of running alongside the tank, hopping up and throwing an incendiary in the turret slot. Large and powerful but with a rather obvious Achilles Heel.

  4. surely a determined amateur effort using O Class model rocket engines and a first stage balloon launch station to get part way up would be able to knock it down? How hard would a guidance system be?

  5. Stuff I learned during my military service at a country that I’d rather not mention here:

    1) These things need to be “refueled” with helium every couple of days.
    2) All it takes is a bolt of lightning or some very bad weather to drop the damn thing down to earth.
    3) Crappy weather might cause extensive downtime for this airship.
    4) 65,000 ft. high isn’t THAT high for something to not be destroyed by a missile if one is so inclined. (hell, you can even see the damn thing from the ground!)

  6. Is US Military is going steam punk? And will I have to fear airship pirates over the skies of Somalia?

  7. Oh, please. What says ‘We are the Bad Guys’ more definitively than tooling around in a giant fucking Zeppelin?

  8. In it’s defense, the article makes it seem like they’ll mostly be using it to monitor insurgents and what not as opposed to nations with airforces. It’d probably be out of the range of what Al-Quaeda, for example, is capable of throwing at it.

  9. Chetoverton: “Oh, please. What says ‘We are the Bad Guys’ more definitively than tooling around in a giant fucking Zeppelin? ”

    Putting a swastika on it.

  10. No risk of being shot down by enemy fire when these things are floating above each major US city. I’m going underground. Who’s with me?

  11. should be able to brew up some mid-power lasers to blind their cameras. Keep shuttling them around and make them cheap enough to abandon when the jackboots kick down the door.

  12. 1. “And today’s aerial coverage is courtesy of the United States Air Force.”

    2. It does have a sort of “We come from the land of the ice and snow/from the midnight sun where the hot springs blow”-thing going, yes.

    (Nobody!? No Led Zep references? Y’all are slippin’.)

  13. The question is not “How vulnerable is it” or “How limited are its capabilities”.
    The question is “How much money can be funneled to how many companies in different congressional districts to build it”.

    PS – there’s no “u” in any of the romanized spellings of al-Qaeda. I’m curious why so many people use the u though – is it just the unfamiliarity of having a q with no u after it?

  14. A few years back, there was helium rationing- not enough to go around for all research purposes. I suspect that some of the lighter-than-air craft that are on the drawing board have been responsible. Moreover, the “Phoenix Lights” are probably prototypes (or even working airships) of projects like WALRUS HULA.

    There’s a lot more going on along these lines than is generally publicized.

  15. People here don’t seem to get how hard it is to actually hit a target that high. No reason it can’t be fitted with an anti-missile system, either.

  16. Lighten up. This is only 400 Million worth of crazy and would look good on the Mexican border I have had it with the “Drug Lords” aka Cowards, killing people and trashing our Parks. Quit trading money for Pot. Grow your own or barter. The sooner the money dries up the sooner our friends don’t have to bury 6000 plus family members per year. Shit was free till the 60’s. It went well with music and dance. Take a Vow. No more Money for Marry Jane.

  17. yeah, that’s the ticket! A flock of small balloon packages released upwind, they deploy at say 80,000 feet and disperse small kinetic flechettes from a dispenser that tracks the reflective top of the blimp. A few hundred small holes ought to do it.

  18. I can do the same job for $50 million…my Diving Bell Tethered to the Horn of the Moon with a Length of Diamond Cable has already made this inelegant sky whale obsolete.

  19. Everyone talks about it being a sitting duck, but think permanent border patrol. Eye of Sauron for the Mexican border is probably where its real use will come into play. When the Mexican drug cartels get their hands on SAMs it will be a sitting target. Until then…

  20. across a border? Nah, no missile needed, just back to blinding lasers. Unless of course the US government is willing to violate Mexican airspace with killer drones like they just did in Pakistan again.

  21. I was speaking of visible and IR frequency cameras.
    Though I wonder how hard it is to build a maser effective at that range if you aren’t worried about it being immediately hit by anti-radiation missiles?

  22. that’s big stuff for big stuff. For at least fifteen years or so there’s been Chinese troop blinding lasers for sale (Quarter million or so).

  23. As a blimp enthusiast, I must say that the vulnerabilities speculated upon in this thread are either greatly exaggerated or not thought through very well.

    Air combat these days consists of missile battles. The blimps will have enough lift to have hundreds of missiles, tractor-trailer loads of ammo for the 200-rounds-per-second electric cannons and a radar dish about the size of a small apartment building. Remember that the old German models had hotels inside of them. So as soon as something pokes it’s head above the horizon it’ll get radar/other-radiation painted and have a dozen or so missiles on its ass: long before it can get a lock on the blimp. I think that the blimp’s apartment sized array could do a pretty good job of ECM. In any case, if your missiles and ECM are worse than your opponent’s then you’ve lost air superiority anyway, regardless of launch platform so the blimp is kind of a side issue there.

    I think that the only way to get to a blimp would be to exhaust its ammo by attacking it with your own blimp and then storm-and-board with your jet-packs!!

    Besides, the current model is planned for areas where the opponents have no airforce left. Also, like an aircraft carrier (which is much bigger, higher value and slower moving target) it would likely have support craft: outlying balloon forts and fighter craft.

    As for the SAMs, it’s the SAMs that are sitting ducks; not the blimps. Even if someone figured out a way to build a missile base right under the surveillance blimp it would take the refrigerator-sized missile the better part of five minutes to get to 65,000 feet: with a “hey, everybody, look at me” flame coming out of its rear. Plenty of time to leisurely consider your many options to get rid of it: including dumping a bucket of gravel on it followed up by a fuel-air bomb for the launch site.
    The further off to the side the launch site is the more time you’ve got to say, let off a fuel-air bomb at the 40,000 foot level.

    And how is the missile getting a lock on the built-out-of-stealth-bomber-material blimp? Not much of a heat-signature and any active scanning that you do (through the blimp’s ECM, and maybe EMP, of course) sends a nice little trail out for the blimp’s weapons to follow back to you. (Note to Takuan: it sure would be polite of someone on the ground to light up their exact position with a laser in order to take delivery of some hell-fire from above. You usually have to send out some Special Ops troops to do that for you! Given the hundreds of Mexicans dying at the hands of the drug cartels every so often I don’t think that the Mexican government would kick up too much if some gangsters were turned into crispy-critters. Heck, I’m sure they’d love to rent a blimp for their side of the border.)

    Other blimpy facts:

    – Ground speed can be from 100 to 300 mph. The old German crews used to use storms and the jet-stream to go MUCH faster than that over the Atlantic.

    – People seem to think that these things are like pressurised balloons at a kid’s party: one pin-prick and it’ll pop. Not so. They’re built out of hundreds, if not thousands of independent gas-cells and can soak up more punishment than any other airborne platform. What happens to one cell has no effect on the others. In the 20s the Shenandoah got caught in a freak storm in Tornado Alley (long story as to why they were in such a dumb place) and was ripped into three pieces. Two of the pieces were successfully and independently piloted to the ground: saving 29 out of the 43 man crew. The Italia polar expedition iced up and then scraped the top of an iceberg : peeling the bottom of the gondola off like a sardine can. The men and their supplies were dumped onto the iceberg and the rest of the craft sailed serenely on – sans crew.

    – Weather can be a problem but that’s more true of most of the other airborne platforms. The blimps’ time-over-target of about three days is many orders of magnitude than the other platforms: some of whom have times measured in seconds. Weather looks good over Iraq, Afghanistan and Mexico for the next few decades.

    – Apart from war situations where people with air forces manage to pump large quantities of tracer bullets into you, hydrogen is perfectly safe. It’s an urban myth that the hydrogen on the Hindenburg was the initial cause of the blaze. Even a casual look at the film shows that the flame at the tail that started the fire wasn’t a hydrogen flame. Wrong colour and wrong shape. Best current guess is that the goop used to make the gas-cells airtight and the graphite-based silvery paint made a flammable mixture that set the whole outer shell on fire. After that was ablaze, then the hydrogen ignited after mixing with the oxygen in the air. The Hindenburg had smoking and non-smoking accommodation and open flames in the kitchen: as did many other hydrogen craft. There were a lot of disasters in the 20s and 30s but they were all due to the building materials of the day and the lack of understanding of aerodynamics back then: all of which are solved problems now.

    – The idea of low-cost aerial mines or drones is interesting but the AI and navigation problems would be enormous. You’d have to release an enormous swarm of balloons to get a few lucky ones anywhere near the blimp and that would tend to get noticed. Powered mines are just slow missiles. The balloons would have to get up to the right altitude and then stay there, despite updrafts and so on, and solve the same target-locking problems that the missiles have or solve a tricky optical recognition problem in order to fire at the exact moment you’re over the blimp. You’ll also have to pack quite a punch to do any damage worth noticing: even the WWI craft could easily take several dead-on strafing runs from biplanes. The new models are going to be much tougher, a fair amount of kevlar-like stuff is likely, and you’re not going to be able to pack a machine gun on a balloon.

  24. because no one would ever notice a GIANT frigging blimp slowly flying over their military installation.

  25. Oh, please. What says ‘We are the Bad Guys’ more definitively than tooling around in a giant fucking Zeppelin?

    Wearing something that looks like a nazi helmet?

  26. I was going to let this one slide, but there is a now a target rich environment. First about me, former member of the military industrial complex, even did a little work on the LTA (somebody mentioned that above) and have done research work on several flexible aircraft/spacecraft and high altitude balloon projects.

    As to the responder asking if this and the LTA are similar. Yes, and no. Similar technology, but the LTA’s purpose is to ferry ‘ready to go’ fighters to distant locations at relatively high speed. It’s not fully LTA (despite the name) as it uses a lifting body shape (nice video BTW, I hadn’t seen that one.) It’s also not high altitude. This thingie is a simple radar platform.

    #22, it’s neither a blimp nor a zeppelin. It’s a semi-rigid airship. LTA people spend hours arguing this at bars (yes, we’re an interesting bunch, aren’t we) so that’s all I’ll say on that matter.

    Re: 65K foot altitude and or shoot down. This is either a misprint or the max altitude for the proof of concept demo. I’m trying to think of a military jet that can’t make it that high. Even the C-130J can do that empty, and it’s a big lumbering cargo plane. At 65K you are vulnerable to any number of threats, from airplanes, SAMs, thunderstorms, heavy cirrus clouds (reduces solar power) and even a rogue corporate airplane or two.

    As to missile attack. Some of you, (shakes head ruefully). SAMs go to well over 100K now a days easily, and have ranges out to over 100 miles. As one poster mentioned, a decent sized amateur rocket (mentioned O motor size) can get to 65K. These would be easy targets at 65K feet, but that’s not the point.

    As far as invulnerability, it’s designed to carry radar. I.e., anti-radiation missiles could take out the mission package in a very spectacular fashion. Then whether the airship comes down or not is irrelevent. (It would, trust me. Electronics catch fire when you blow them up, and operating fuel cells (making oxygen and hydrogen) would only make the demise more exciting.)

    These things (at least from the info I’ve seen), when operational, are designed to sit high above and off range, my guess as to the operational altitude would be between 120K and 160K feet and a couple of hundred miles uprange, not to keep it out of harm’s way mostly, but because it’s a relatively stable airmass there, plus you get a really good view of a lot of Badguyland. It gets there, sets up shop, and sits there. As several posters noted, it’s now a giant eye in the sky (I think Eye of Sauron is a great name BTW.)

    They aren’t stealth (they’re active radar sites, for Cripes sake!), they can’t evade (300 mph?! that’s dead in the water for modern air combat), they don’t need an armada of defensive measures (they’ll be in relatively friendly airspace, and if they’re working correctly, you won’t be able to sneak up on them anyway, strong radar, remember), and, in case you haven’t guessed, they’re not manned vehicles (10 year flights, even I wouldn’t sign up for that gig.)

    If this idea creeps you out, I wouldn’t start making tin foil hats quite yet. I’d give this thing a 5% chance of making it past demo. Then, if they made a ‘real one’, I’d guess maybe a 10% chance of going operational. Generals are always thinking they want stuff like this, but the bottom line is current AWACS airplanes can do a really good job doing what this is designed to do in most situations, and in situations where AWACS don’t do as well (think surveil the Pakastan/Afghan border) we’d have trouble getting this there and keeping it there because of politics.

    Plus small, cheap UAVs (my current obsession) could do most of the job this would envision much more cost effectively. You could put up a whole swarm of long endurance UAVs, network the radar outputs, and have a 3D battlefield (or drug interdiction, or hippie protester, or whatever) situation map much cheaper than this beastie costs. Plus, then bad guys could shoot down ten or so a day without degrading the intelligence. (More business for me!)

    Sorry for the long winded post, but some of the above, to paraphrase Oppenheimer, ‘isn’t right, it isn’t even wrong.’


  27. Sort of what the Pentagon was doing in the 1950s. The ZPG-3W was a giant (120m long) manned blimp which had a 13m rotating radar antenna inside the envelope. It was designed to mount a radar picket around the coast of the US looking for Soviet bombers. The advantage over fixed wing aircraft was that they could loiter on-station for up to two days before having to come back and refuel.

    They were retired in the early 1960s. None were preserved.

    Photos here:

  28. I hope the length of Jimmitude’s excellent comment above doesn’t discourage too many people from reading it.

    But in case it does, one particular point is well worth repeating: When you’re that high, you can do your recon from friendly airspace, not necessarily from directly overhead. So to everyone talking about how easy this would be to shoot down or disable, try thinking about the consequences of shooting at an aircraft that is flying in another country’s airspace, especially a country (or a country allied with a country) that already has reason to want to watch you closely with expensive military equipment. You’d practically be BEGGING to, um, be “liberated”, as the US calls it these days.

  29. Airshowfan,

    Thanks for the nice words. And yeah, I usually try to be a little more succinct, but there was a lot of non-info floating around.

    I’m an airshow fan myself (like you couldn’t guess.) I also live close enough to go to the EAA Oshkosh show every year!

    The other point I’d stress is the very small chance this will get beyond the science project stage. Just too easy to fill the gaps with existing hardware.


  30. yeah,likeliest scenario is a SAM purchased black market. Though there is a difference between this zlimp (bepplin?)used cross border or to oppress a domestic population.

  31. This is a terrible waste of taxpayer money. This seemed like a fun idea until someone mentioned weekly helium refueling trips. I’d much rather we just buy another 2 B-2 bombers and put them to good use for what 10 of these would cost. A B-2 can navigate to an important conflict spot a lot faster (mach 0.8 according to wikip.) than what amounts to a floating balloon.

  32. Summary:

    Slightly cheaper and maintainable* geosynchronous satellite, with better resolution.

    *Assumption that makes concept work.

  33. this project has been in development for a while. there was a prototype that was stored at an airbase in Dayton, Ohio. i was living out there three years ago when the local papers ran an article about a fire alarm that EMT’s and Firefighters responded to that was in a supposedly unused aircraft hangar,and instead they found one of these gigantic zeppelins. the story ran once, and then disappeared.

  34. Nadreck,

    As a fellow blimp enthusiast, please do not kill me with your heavily-armed fleet of killer blimps. Thanks.

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