Big Army wants to go small. In keeping with its push to equip infantry squads with the communications and intelligence-gathering gear necessary to act (somewhat) autonomously, the U.S. Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF) has issued a Request for Information looking for industry input for the development of a small aerostat that can be controlled by a hand held controller, and be launched and recovered in 20 minutes or less.
Since the request comes from the Rapid Equipping Force, not only does the Army want industry to ping them back right away, but they’re also looking for mature, non-developmental technologies. The RFI calls for a commercial off the shelf, or government off the shelf “modular compact helium filled aerostat and payload deployment system” that will give “small tactical units…an Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance capability.”
The request also states that the Army is only interested in models that can fly (or float…) in any type of weather, during the day or night, and be able to stay airborne for a period of at least four days. And then there are the specifics. The system must weigh no more than 130 lbs., clock in at no more than 40 ft. long, 20 ft. tall, and 16 ft. in diameter, and weigh less than 2,500 lbs., including the deployment system. In keeping with the push for giving squad-sized units new intelligence gathering ability, the request says that the system should require “no more than 2-3 personnel at any time to perform any and all functions,” and the entire system, including the helium bottles, etc. must be transportable on one vehicle or trailer.
We know that the Army has deployed dozens of huge blimps to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade—and all of the big contractors have been fighting over the hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts to build, launch and maintain them. What about these relatively small blimps? They might not be as eye-popping as their older cousins, but they’ll certainly be cheaper and more numerous….and isn’t that what the new Army equipping strategy is all about?