April 8, 2010: The U.S. is shipping dozens of aerostats (tethered blimps) to Afghanistan. In the last few years, the U.S. Army has combined communications and electronic eavesdropping gear and software, with day/night camera towers, and aerostats, to produce BETSS-C (Base Expeditionary Targeting and Surveillance Sensors-Combined). The observation towers have been used since 2003, in Iraq and Afghanistan. The army has purchased 300 more towers for Afghanistan, so every U.S. base, even if temporary, has one. In addition, they are equipping hundreds of existing towers with the BETSS-C gear and the software to run it. Most of these Iraq bases are now being closed down, and much of the BETSS-C equipment is being sent to Afghanistan.
The army buys Eagle Eye mobile surveillance tower systems for about $600,000 each. This is a security system of day/night cameras, laser range finder and designator, all mounted on a truck mounted tower. Over the last five years, the original static towers have gotten more mobile, and grown taller. The tallest Eagle Eye tower is 107 feet tall, allowing the cameras to spot vehicles up to 25 kilometers away. Great for keeping an eye on thinly populated areas in a desert, which western Iraq and many parts of Afghanistan, have plenty of. The earlier 30 foot tower can see out to eleven kilometers, the 60 foot tower out to 16 kilometers and 84 foot tower out to 20 kilometers. The 30 foot tower was adequate for most situations, which usually involved guarding a base, but the taller tower also serves as a communications relay for widely dispersed troops. The towers can be easily taken apart or erected by troops.
When temporary bases are set up, an Eagle Eye tower provides the equivalent of a permanent UAV presence, which, just by being there, tends to discourage attacks, or any misbehavior in the vicinity of the base.
Then there is the RAID (Rapid Aerostat Initial Deployment) system, which uses a blimp floating at about a thousand feet up, tethered by a cable that provides power and communications to the day and night cameras up there. The big problem is ground fire from rifles and machine-guns. Iraqis, in particular, like using the RAID blimps as targets. Rifle fire won't destroy the blimps, but does cause them to be brought down more frequently for repairs. Normally, the blimps can stay up for 30 days at a time, but the bullet hole repairs have some of them coming down every few days. The steel tower systems also suffer gunfire damage, but rarely any that damages the equipment. It was soon found that tower mounted cameras were just as good as the aerostats, in most situation, and much cheaper. Thus there are more than twenty times as many tower systems as aerostat based ones.
BETSS-C turns the towers into more than just a surveillance system. BETSS-C operators have radio links to nearby bases, and the towers in those bases. Thus bases can call on each other for help in chasing down any hostiles spotted, as well as using video or electronic information each tower might pick up on the bad guys.
The towers have been a big help in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where they are all over the place. This kind of surveillance makes it more difficult for the enemy to sneak around bases, either to collect information, plant a roadside bomb, or set up an ambush. BETSS-C software contains many intelligence tools, and links to databases. Using BETSS-C, operators can reveal seemingly innocent behavior as part of something more sinister, and preventable.