Spy blimp surge needs more helium

WASHINGTON – The military loves its spy blimps so much it needs as many bulk helium gas containers as it can get its hands on to adequately supply the coming armada.

Look up. Tethered Aerostat blimps are ubiquitous over warzone bases. Last year, the U.S. contracted out for bulk containers to supply a surge of blimps to Afghanistan. Since that award, the U.S. announced two more surges are coming, including much larger blimps needing much more helium. Now the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency is “developing an industrial base of bulk helium container manufacturers” to keep the gas flowing for years to come.

This is not earth-shaking news, but it’s another peek into the Pentagon’s future priorities: total coverage of the skies.

Robert Gates, former defense secretary, begged Congress earlier this year to fast track some “overseas contingency account” to purchase additional surveillance technology. In March, Gates was visiting the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines at Forward Operating Base Sabit Qadam in Helmand province, when one Marine said how much he loved the protection the eye-in-the-sky above their base provided. Gates lit up and said that was exactly what he was trying to tell Congress.

In July, DLA wrote up a justification for extending a helium container contract with Western Sales & Testing, out of Amarillo, Texas. A contracting officer, justifying the six-month contract extension instead of starting a lengthy solicitation, wrote that DLA has been contacting every known helium container manufacturer to solicit bids and attracting new bidders to build out the industrial base. DLA estimated it takes eight weeks just to ship one of those suckers, much less make them from scratch. So it wants to keep the ones it already has.

With the budget crunch coming down the pipe in Washington, blimps have found another advantage: they’re cheap. At the annual drone trade show in August, an Aerostat representative pitched his spy vehicle as a more durable, longer-lasting multi-million dollar savings alternative to fixed-wing drones.



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