Poor communication and surveillance capabilities have awakened interest in the military in blimps equipped with powerful sensors to conduct surveillance over disputed territory, possibly including the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) and Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島), reports are saying.
According to a recent report in Defense News, interest in acquiring such devices — known as aerostats — to increase the nation’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities increased in the wake of a Sept. 25 incident near the Diaoyutais, during which Japanese Coast Guard vessels engaged in primarily symbolic water cannon exchanges with the Coast Guard Administration (CGA) and about 40 Taiwanese fishing vessels.
Citing an unnamed military officer, the report said that the CGA and the navy had struggled to monitor developments during the clashes due largely to limited surveillance capabilities.
The military source said aerostats would be extremely useful if deployed at Pengjia Islet (彭佳嶼), located about 55km north of Keelung and 141km east of the Japan-controlled Diaoyutais, as well as on Itu Aba — the largest island in the Spratlys (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) — which is controlled by Taiwan.
However, the source said such deployments would not necessarily constitute further militarization of the islets, because the blimps can also be used for disaster relief, surveillance of civilian maritime vessels, communication and search-and-rescue operations.
Taiwan’s current ISR capabilities in remote areas currently depend on E-2T/K “Hawkeye” early-warning aircraft. Twelve refurbished P-3C “Orion” maritime surveillance aircraft, which Taiwan has purchased from the US, are to augment those capabilities once they enter service starting next year. Taiwan is also developing a number of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), some of which could have the ability to conduct surveillance at sea, but remains years away from deploying satellites for maritime surveillance.
However, manned aircraft and UAVs have limited loitering time, and the latter have additional payload restrictions due to their size. As near-fixed devices, aerostats or tethered blimps with an ISR component would provide much greater coverage while being more cost-effective and easier to maintain, Defense News said.
According to the article, US-based TCOM, L.P. has recognized Taiwan’s interest in aerostats and may be actively promoting its products — more specifically, aerostats in the 17m, 22m and 28m range, which can operate at altitudes of 300m, 900m and 1,500m respectively.
Ron Davis, in charge of international development at TCOM, will reportedly visit Taiwan early next year to push for a deal, though the company has not provided confirmation.
The industry source told Defense News that the Navy was especially interested in acquiring the company’s 32m Small Aerostat Surveillance System, which comes equipped with an APG-66SR radar and can detect maritime, air and ground targets within an area of 39km2, while staying aloft for up to 14 days.