Pentagon boosting Afghanistan 'eyes in the sky'

Pentagon boosting Afghanistan 'eyes in the sky'

The Pentagon is intensely focused on getting more trucks, surveillance equipment and other military equipment into Afghanistan to prepare for what will be a critical summer in the war, Defense Undersecretary Ashton Carter said on Friday, Reuters reported.

Carter, head of Pentagon acquisition, technology and logistics, said the success of the U.S. war in Afghanistan would depend largely on being able to get weapons and support services to the U.S. troops headed to the land-locked country, which he described as "the last place where you would like to be fighting a war."

"This summer is going to be very critical. If we don't get ourselves in there and get set ... we can't have success," he told a conference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies,

As part of that effort, Carter said he was increasing 20-fold the number of airships hovering over Afghanistan, providing "eyes in the sky" to troops on the ground.

Equipped with sophisticated cameras and the ability to stream images to U.S. bases on the ground, the airships would help track any activity that could jeopardize the troops, including the burying of roadside bombs.

At the same time, the very visible presence of the airships would keep potential attackers on their guard, Carter said, calling the airships a more affordable way to maintain surveillance than more expensive unmanned airplanes, which are also being deployed in Afghanistan in large numbers.

Carter did not name the airship maker, and Pentagon officials were not immediately available for comment.

South Dakota-based Raven Industries Inc (RAVN.O) last month said it had a tethered airship backlog of more than $10 million. It said the airships would be paired with surveillance equipment and deployed in Afghanistan.

Aria International (ARAH.PK), based in Virginia, also makes a helium-filled blimp equipped with infrared thermal cameras, and Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) has a larger version that it has been promoting to the military for years.

The unmanned airships will cut the need for risky on-foot missions by staying in the air much longer and feeding data to commanders through on-board cameras and sensors.

These sensors could also "rewind" after an explosion to find who planted the bomb and where they went.

Carter said the airships would be under the control of local forward operating bases, not commanders far away, making them a good tool on a fairly localized basis.

He said the Pentagon was also accelerating delivery of hand-held metal detectors and ground-penetrating radars, as part of an urgent drive to reduce the number of casualties from road-side bombs or improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

The military was also deploying about 1,000 new armored trucks built by Oshkosh Corp (OSK.N) per month, double the initial rate, Carter said.

He said Defense Secretary Robert Gates had told him to "make sure that we are doing all we can do" to prevent the large number of IED-related troop deaths and injuries that marked the early years of the Iraq war.

The Pentagon was also examining several models of unmanned helicopters that could be used to get supplies to troops without using dangerous convoys on the road, he said.

At the same time the military is dramatically increasing its presence in Afghanistan, it was also dealing with the drawdown in Iraq, a major logistical challenge, Carter said.

He said the military had already removed 2.2 million pieces of military equipment from more than 350 forward operating bases in Iraq but needed to deal with 1.2 million more pieces by August, deciding if they should return to the United States, stay in Iraq or go elsewhere for use in future conflicts.

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