By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2009
A state-of-the-art observation balloon with round-the-clock video and sound surveillance capability has been installed several thousand feet above Kabul to monitor Thursday's elections in Afghanistan, according to U.S. and Afghan military officials.
The "aerostat," which looks like blimps that fly over American sporting events, has a full-motion video camera that can pan 360 degrees and provide nonstop, instant surveillance. "With that camera, we can go anywhere in the city to allow us to look for any threats or any intentions from the insurgency," according to Col. Marilyn H. Jenkins, an Army intelligence officer. In an interview with Armed Forces Network Afghanistan, Jenkins said intelligence officers refer to the balloon as "marshmallow man" because of its appearance.
The high-definition imagery and audio from the balloon, which went into operation this month, is linked to other surveillance data to provide security forces on the ground the ability to recognize threats early. "The system is capable of immediate reaction to emerging incidents to capture video of unanticipated events," according to a U.S. military statement.
Anchored at Bala Hissar, a 5th-century fortress that overlooks Kabul, the balloon flies at an altitude that puts it out of range of most Taliban weapons, officials said. The fortress serves as a headquarters for an Afghan National Army division.
The U.S. Army recently hired a private security company to protect the balloon and the team that operates it. "If the Aerostat and/or its crew were harmed, the Afghan elections, which are critical to the development of a stable government in Afghanistan, could be disrupted," according to the Joint Contracting Command, which awarded the security contract.
"We are pleased to have this system because it will contribute to making Kabul safer and will assist us in denying insurgents the ability to carry out threats," Gen. Zahir Azimi, an Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman, said in a statement.
Aerostats have been used since 2004 at forward operating bases in Afghanistan and Iraq. Most have crews of five working in 12-hour shifts. Their ability to have a continuous view of a vast area has made them extremely useful in eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistan border, officials said.
More than a dozen aerostats were used in Iraq to provide permanent surveillance over towns and cities, including Baghdad, and there are plans to install additional units in Afghanistan for better coverage of its cities and towns.