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Able to stay in the air for days and hold more spy gear than fixed-wing drones, aerostats and airships are becoming key surveillance tools in the Afghan war.

With their ability to stay in the air for days at a time—and hold more spy gear than any drone—aerostats and airships are quickly becoming surveillance tools of choice in the Afghan war. The military carried out three aerostat surges between last fall and this summer; several dozen are deployed in Afghanistan now. But really, that’s just a scene-setter.

Early next year, the U.S. military is planning to send not one, but two “freakishly large” airships to the skies above Afghanistan. If the giant blimps can get the helium and helium containers they need to fly, that is. Demand for helium in Afghanistan has shot up, from 49,000 cubic meters to fiscal year 2009 to an estimated 531,000 cubic meters this year.

When one of those airships, the Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV), needed its gas, it ran into a problem. LEMV-builder Northrop Grumman “could not obtain the helium and/or the large number of bulk containers needed for its initial fill and as such, required emergency support,” according to a Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) contracting document.

To meet LEMV’s “huge gaseous helium requirements” in time, DLA Energy couldn’t competitively bid out the 800,000 standard cubic feet of helium needed to fill up the “longer than a football field, taller than a seven-story building” airship.

DLA ran into similar bottlenecks trying to fill up the smaller, tethered aerostats used in Afghanistan to watch and listen for enemy action. In justifications for “other than full and open competition,” DLA said it wasn’t able to competitively bid out container lease contracts in the rush to keep the aerostats aloft. “Manufacturing new bulk helium ISO containers is a very lengthy process.”

“Industry cannot keep up with the increased demand for containers needed by the Army’s second and third Aerostat deployment surges,” the agency admitted in July.

In fact, sources familiar with the process tell Danger Room, when DLA originally issued a call for helium supplies to meet the airship and aerostat programs’ needs, nobody responded. The order was just too big. That forced the government to break up its helium order into smaller chunks.

Things aren’t dire—for now. DLA spokesman David Sims tells Danger Room that the agency “has not experienced firsthand any gaseous helium shortages. Our helium suppliers have met the challenges of our increased requirements and supported us 100 percent with on-time, on-specification deliveries.”

Helium gas suppliers and producers add that government orders make up just a tiny fraction of the total demand for their helium, and that any increased demand from the military wasn’t hampering their ability to provide helium. A Northrop Grumman spokesperson claimed that helium shortages have not affected its LEMV program. DLA did not immediately respond to Danger Room’s questions.

But the cost of securing and processing helium has grown “substantially,” especially in the last five to 10 years, said Eric Bass, strategic product manager for helium at Linde North America. In at least the past four years, Linde has seen U.S. government demand for helium from its customers grow roughly about one to two percent each year. The largest helium sources in the world are rapidly reaching capacity.

Getting mega-blimps to landlocked Afghanistan is no cakewalk. Once filled, these spy blimps can’t be deflated at the risk of messing up their flight control surfaces. This means that helium either needs to be flown to a base where the blimps have to be filled up or they have to be inflated in the U.S. and then shipped over to Afghanistan in a giant container.

And the military continues to march toward a future of spy blimps. A recent presolicitation calling for “unrestricted procurement for delivery” of high-purity helium said that contracts would be performed through 2017.

DLA Energy just increased its helium orders from one firm, Dubai-based Global Gases, by 50 percent—from two million cubic feet to three million. Phil Kornbluth, an executive vice president with Global Gases supplier Matheson Gas, says it’s a substantial increase.


Image courtesy of National Guard

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