Thailand to Use Blimp to Seek Guerillas

Is a big, easy-to-hit helium-filled blimp just the ticket for hunting jihadi guerillas in Thailand's strife-torn southern region?

The Royal Thai Army says it is, and an Arlington, Virginia-based company is defending its harshly criticized US$ 9.7 million sale of the blimp, equipped with infrared thermal cameras, to the Thais. Scathing criticism of the California-built Sky Dragon blimp and its cameras has been published repeatedly in Thailand's media during recent weeks, and voiced by worried politicians who describe the airship as a waste of money, not fully able to fly on operational missions, and impractical for Thailand's low-intensity guerrilla war where Muslim rebels hide in hilly jungles.

An Internet search turned up no instance where a blimp is being used for counter-insurgency operations anywhere else in the world. The company's website doesn't show whether it has sold any airships elsewhere.

The single-pilot, 46.6-meter long Sky Dragon uses a three-blade propeller for a maximum flight speed of 82 kmh. At that speed and at that size, it presents an interesting challenge if it gets low enough for anybody carrying an RPG-7, the cheap and ubiquitous successor to the famed B-40 rocket, which is effective at 500 meters for stationary targets and 300 meters for moving ones. The rocket grenade self-destructs at 920 meters. The blimp's maximum altitude is about 3,048 meters.

"Questions remain as to whether the Sky Dragon can function as planned, whether it is an effective tool against insurgency -- or is it a bigger sham than the GT200?" the Bangkok Post asked in an editorial. The GT200 “mine detector” is an unrelated alleged hoax involving a British company which convinced Thailand's military, police and other security personnel to spend more than US$24 million on what appeared to be pieces of cardboard which were inserted into empty plastic containers, each decorated with a collapsible antenna.

The hundreds of GT200s were touted as bomb and drug detectors, but were recently revealed to be ineffective at detecting explosives. The government belatedly denounced the GT200, but Thailand's confused military continues to use them while searching for bombs in the south, where more than 4,000 people have died on all sides since 2004, in the worsening Muslim separatist insurgency.

“We have one last test flight to conduct, and it should be completed within the next week," said Aria International's President and CEO Mike "Bing" Crosby on Wednesday (March 10) in an e-mail interview.

"The only item left is to utilize the long-range microwave system, from the airship to the receive site in the south of Thailand. All of the helicopter-mounted systems have passed all the tests, and the airship is able to transmit to all the local sites,” Crosby said. "We just need to complete one last step in the process. It will be in the very near future, and there is no risk of this not occurring."

The blimp, he said, “is performing the missions of providing surveillance to the RTA. The full capability of the airship and the cameras are being employed right now. The cameras are able to downlink information to a mobile command vehicle...for field commanders responding to incidents or on patrol with the airborne assets. The downlink can also send pictures real-time to a number of other intel centers and operational command locations."

The blimp's nylon-based skin, however, has suffered problems that have presented an eager target for Bangkok's cartoonists.

"There was, on a routine inspection, a hole that developed during the deflation of the ship in preparing it to move from U-Tapao to the south," Crosby said. “The manufacturer, in accordance with the warranty, came to Thailand and assisted us in the repairs prior to inflation in the south."

The problem, he said, was "solved by repair of the material that holds the helium. The ship is in perfect working order today."

To fly the Sky Dragon blimp, "there is a need for ongoing helium to be provided, but it is at the cost of approximately 200,000 baht (6,000 U.S. dollars) per month," he said.

The five digital V-14MSII cameras, approved by the US for release to the Thai army, were manufactured by Axsys Technologies, based in Grass Valley, California. The V-14 camera's spying ability is phenomenal. Its "specs" document displays a color photograph of a man in a book-lined room, using a desktop computer.

"This man -- in an apartment in Los Angeles -- would be extremely surprised to learn that we can read his computer screen from a moving helicopter flying past his window at around one kilometer from his building," the V-14 camera's document said.

The blimp's laptop-linked, high-definition, zoom cameras "have infra-red/thermal capability" and are mounted on the airship and in use, Crosby said. The fat oval blimp has an enclosed gondola constructed from aluminum alloys, attached underneath, which allows a pilot to fly the Sky Dragon and relay pictures from its cameras to nearby helicopters, vehicles and buildings.

"Aria International Incorporated is the prime contractor in the contract with the Royal Thai Army," Crosby said. "There were five surveillance cameras purchased, [including] two that are installed and working on the Worldwide Aeros A-40D Sky Dragon Airship, and three additional cameras on RTA helo's," he said, referring to three support helicopters. Aeros manufactures the Sky Dragon blimp in Montebello, California.

Asked for a breakdown of the US$9.7 million price tag for the blimp, plus the cameras, maintenance, and training for Thais to fly and use the equipment, Crosby replied:

"Airship equals 2.8 million. Cameras and downlink equipment equals 6 million." Additional costs included the "price of one armored mobile command vehicle," plus installation, integration and other investments.

Aria International said its contract includes training, continuing maintenance tasks, construction of an airship hangar, and construction of a 12-room hotel for the Aria staff working at the Army base," near the southern town of Pattani.

"To build a prolonged peace process, there should be other, and better, ways to do it on such a large budget," said Worrawit Basu, a senator on the Senate's military committee.

Thailand's two English-language newspapers, The Bangkok Post and The Nation, mocked the blimp's cost, purpose and flying ability. But, Crosby said, "the Bangkok Post was horribly incorrect, and made incredible mistakes bordering on liable and clearly unprofessional reporting."

An editorial cartoon, published in the Bangkok Post on Saturday (March 6), showed the Sky Dragon leaking gusts of helium despite several sloppy patches, while Thai soldiers clumsily grappled to control it and a senior officer asked: "Does it work?"

The English-language Nation newspaper blasted the blimp in an editorial headlined: "Bloated Armed Forces Waste Valuable Resources." It said: "Besides the fact that the airship makes a big target, its sheer size and slow speed would easily tip off insurgents who reside in just about every village in the deep south. Of course, the insurgency in the south has become a great excuse to buy more hardware."

Reporters were banned on Friday (March 5) during the blimp's official hand-over to Thailand's 15th Infantry Regiment in the southern province of Pattani.

"The procurement committee must take responsibility if the airship cannot fly," Army Chief Gen. Anupong Paojinda was quoted as saying on March 5. "If we cannot accept it, we will not pay the final amount to the company."

The military toppled an elected government in a September 2006 coup, before allowing a return to elections, and still dominates Thailand's politics and government spending. The blimp contract was signed in April 2009.

Three months later, Aria said in a media statement's headline: "Blimps Find Favor as Poor Man's Satellite," and hailed the deal as a success.