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US Navy Could Use Blimps to Track Drug Submarines

Monday, April 08, 2013 - 08:15 PM

The US Navy has been testing a blimp in Jacksonville Florida to see if it could be used as a submarine spotter off the coast of Central and South America.

Testing of the MZ-3A helium filled airship at Naval Station Mayport wrapped up Friday. Earlier last week, US Senator Bill Nelson (D- FL) took a ride on the blimp, which can carry a crew of 10

"I was really struck how maneuverable it is," says Nelson. "It can rapidly ascend and rapidly descend."

Bill Nelson after his blimp ride (photo by Katie Ross)

Nelson says the benefit of the blimp is fuel economy.

"The amount of fuel it takes to crank up a jet and just taxi out to the runway is the amount of fuel a blimp would use in an entire 24 hour period," he says.

The U.S. Navy's Fourth Fleet patrols the waters around Central and South America- shipping routes for traffickers of drugs, people and other contraband as part of Operation Martillo.

Sen. Nelson says smugglers use a variety of boats- some of them submersible.

"They ride right below the water’s surface, but they’ve gotten a lot more sophisticated than that. They’re building submarines."

The MZ-3A has a cruising speed around 45 knots. Navy spokesman Lieutenant Commander Corey Barker says the blimp wouldn't replace the fixed-wing jet and turbo-prop aircraft currently used in maritime surveillance.

"The blimp would not be responsible for pursuing a ship or fast speedboat," Barker says. "It would simply be responsible for detecting that and passing that information to our patrol units, our aircraft with our partner nations and the coastguard to intercept that ship."

USS Macon (U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.)

Airship technology is not new. The US Navy was flying rigid airships in the 1920s and 1930s. But Lt. Commander Barker says the surveillance equipment on board the MZ-3A blimp is state of the art.

He says the Navy will also be testing an aerostat, an unmanned balloon that could fly behind a ship to scan the surrounding sea.

"It's not as wide an area as a blimp, but it will have sensors that can detect and monitor illicit activity in the area," says Barker.  Aerostats have been used by the military in Afghanistan and also in the 1980s by the US Coastguard to patrol the Caribbean.

U.S. Coast Guard ship with aerostat balloon (Photo: US Coastguard) 

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