By Sharon Watkins Lang (SMDC/ARSTRAT Command Historian)April 26, 2018
In American military history, balloons have demonstrated their effectiveness since 1863 during the Civil War, for both peace and war missions. With thousands of hours of flying time, balloons have developed observation capabilities.
In the 20th century alone, balloons supported anti-submarine and anti-marine patrols, fire detection and direction, rescue operations, Navy's Airborne Early Warning Program and even missile detection in a 1961 Navy test. The concept was revitalized in the 1990s and in 1996, the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command was tasked to explore the potential of aerostat technology for missile defense.
Just five years later, the command began to explore a new aspect of this concept: the lighter-than-air High Altitude Airship, which could fill the capability gap between aerial vehicles and satellites. Under the proposed Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration, the HAA would be much larger than the typical blimp and operate for extended periods at an altitude of 65,000 feet.
Equipped with an infrared sensor and a steel-track or related radar and data relay equipment, the proposed concept could address both National Reconnaissance Office and Ballistic Missile Defense missions. With a persistent surveillance capability that could range from 50 km to 4,000 km depending upon the final sensor configuration, the areas of consideration for the unmanned airships ranged from border patrol and counter terrorist and drug smuggling operations, to theater air and missile defense, cruise missile defense, and national missile defense missions.
On April 26, 2004 in U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command history, the HAA team was at White Sands/Alamogordo, New Mexico, for the third and final free balloon launch of the HAA test articles.
The Air Force Research Laboratory Balloon Operations facility launched a large clear, non-powered balloon equipped with a special framework. Attached to the framework was "an HAA payload module for test of the module canister itself, a miniature HAA, only 8 feet long, with various sensors and photovoltaic cells mounted on it, and a power module of batteries and sensing electronics."
Carefully monitored by the Air Force facility, the flight the balloon remained aloft for 18.5 hours. It landed near Rankin, Texas, the next day.