Marines Use Helium Balloons to Talk to Harrier Jump Jets Over Libya

The Marines debuted another new technology last week in the fight against Gadhafi’s forces when the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard the USS Kearsarge used a high-tech balloon to relay messages to the ship’s AV-8B Harrier jump jets flying strike missions over Libya, beyond the range of the ship’s transmitters.

Normally, the ship would have to pass messages to a nearby E-3 AWACS jet that would then send those messages along to the Harriers. However, the helium balloon-based Lofted Communications System carried aboard the Kearsarge fills that role without leaving the Marines reliant on an AWACS.

Here’s how it works; depending on how far the Marines need to send messages, they send up a tethered or untethered balloon carrying a communications relay device capable of passing radio messages and encrypted information hundreds of miles to the Harriers.

All of this saves a ton of cash and keeps the dozens of airmen aboard an AWACS out of harm’s way, or frees them up to fly other missions.



  • elportonative77

    Gotta love it when you save money.

  • Randall Combs

    Adapt, and over come.

  • jamesb101

    Cheap and it works…..

    Low Tech…I love it!

  • yankee fifth

    What are the risks for loss of communication equipment, encryption on disposable balloons? What is to stop someone from snagging the balloon and its payload?

    I am all for simple solutions as long as they work. :)

    • Jacob

      I would imagine that the tethered balloons would work better for that reason.

    • chactas.stryker

      A relay in theory would not necessarily need to contain the crypto but simply boost the signal… plus the key material constantly changes to account for this battlefield inevitability anyway… accidents happen, just ask Murphy. Presumably an AWAC would have the very same vulnerability plus a bunch of crew members, tanker support, fighter CAP, etc, etc… Cost/risk analysis… Marines “1” Air Force “0”

    • trustbutverify

      I concur with chactas- there’s no reason to include keymat on the balloons, all they need to do is loft a simple repeater. Encrypted signal in = encrypted signal out.
      As for the cost, this is a relatively simple piece of equipment and it doesn’t have to cost very much, particularly in DoD terms.

  • Oblat

    It would save money if there wasn’t a bunch of AWACs flying around the clock nearby anyways. Really it’s just another case of the marines trying to pretend that all the other services don’t exist.

  • Max

    Works great, as long as we have air superiority…Will that work in all situations? Probably not.

  • dauntlessCelt

    “High-tech balloon.” It just sounds funny.

    Was it Patton who said something like “never tell a man HOW to do something, you may be surprised at the results”.

  • Adam

    ha classic, with the low tech wars being fought now you have to wonder about keeping AWACS and other high tech stuff in the air this is great idea as the Americans will almost certainly have air superiority for many a year to come. China? Russia or even India? blah its about motivation,training and national pride things the Yanks have in bucket loads

  • chactas.stryker

    Sec. Gates cancelled the marines EFV on Jan 6, 2011… sad when you think how efficient the OV-22 Osprey is w/ it’s additional range that ALL the Services have now benefitted directly from Marine R&D $’s even though it was plagued w/ problems and withstood years of questionable need and project cost analysis. We spent $3.5 Billion on research on the EFV/AAAV because it is scheduled to replace the AAV which came into the inventory under Pres. Nixon 40+ years ago at the same time as the LCC USS Mt. Whitney purpose built by Congress for “Amphibious Command” and Control. Of course now it is occupied by NATO NAVAL Brass enforcing a “No Fly Zone,” oh the irony!

  • chactas.stryker

    Given the history of the LCC Class during previous conflicts, like the first Persian Gulf War, the Marine’s Naval Leadership knows the value of its marines, as it continues to littoral-ly capital-ize on the backs of Marine budget restraint and “perceived” capability.

    Remember Tarawa anyone? “The ideal defensive barrier has always been the one that could not be demolished, which held up assaulting forces under the unobstructed fire of the defenders and past which it was impossible to run, crawl, dig, climb, or sail. The barrier reef fulfills these conditions to the letter, except when sufficient amphibious tanks and similar vehicles are available to the attackers.” — Admiral Nimitz

  • Cranky Observer

    > The Marines debuted another new technology last week
    > in the fight against Gadhafi’s forces when the 26th Marine
    > Expeditionary Unit aboard the USS Kearsarge used a high-tech
    > balloon to relay messages to the ship’s AV-8B Harrier jump
    > jets flying strike missions over Libya, beyond the range of the
    > ship’s transmitters.

    Interesting use of the concept, but I believe that is one of the technologies that Arthur C. Clarke’s research group worked on during WWII, so I would hardly call it “new”!


    • chactas.stryker

      @Cranky- more revisionist history forgetting we are going “Back to the Future” if you ask me… just look a light rail if you want proof.

  • Nadnerbus

    Guys, its obviously some sort of alien UFO. Or maybe light from Venus reflecting off swamp gas.

  • Sanem

    make that balloon a bit bigger, put a small radar or some passive sensors on it, and each ship can have it’s own, low cost mini-awacs. not world-changing, but against low-flying aircraft and anti-ship missiles every second counts

    but even better would be to use such relays to control UAVs far over the horizon: time to robotize those Harriers!

    • Mastro

      A 360 radar weighs a lot more than an antenna.

      Maybe a small dirigible could carry something-

  • Matrix_3692

    looks simple and effective (and i like that), but how far really can this balloon help extend the com range? Isn’t there suppose to be AWACS flying 24/7 in theater and SATCOMs available?

    • chactas.stryker

      Line of sight…. VHS is line of sight to the balloon, mountain top, horizon, etc.. SATCOM needs an antenna with gyro to stabilize it’s azimuth on a satelite… also line of sight, but you can’t mount it on a spinning airplane doing 700 knots.

      • FormerDirtDart

        They have had SATCOM on aircraft for decades. Its is however a bit less practical to slap one on a fighter. I believe the B2 uses SATCOM as the primary operational communications method.

  • Mastro

    Maybe I’m paranoid- but isn’t there a danger of a plane hitting the tether?

    They might have accidentally reinvented the barrage balloon.

  • Lkimura

    The balloon could be relaying RF transmissions using a passive relay, if so no power is required and no sensitive radio equipment.

  • Chuck Reynolds

    With everybody focusing on how much each day costs us over there it’s good to see some intel come out about how they’re thinking and using ways to save some cash

  • 4prey

    One’s upon a time, after flawless victory, you will notice that your children attend Muslim church with your neighbor` kids from Libya.

  • Tenn Slim

    Good for the USMC.
    Innovate, adapt, succeed.
    Semper FI

  • chris eltringham

    Love to see Marines inguenuity at work. Semper Fi.

  • @MarandaLaw

    You guy’s are just Brilliant….Bring our troops home safe!!

  • Devil Dog

    If the USA only new how much it cost to keep a Harrier flying, they wouldn’t be talking about some damn low cost balloon. I’ve been working on these jets for years now.. The cost for parts is upsetting to say the least. For example, a piece of cloth 3 inches long with two gromments cost $3,750. This part holds an explosive in place on the ejection seat. With that said, my Marines made the same part for less than 10 bucks.. I could go on and on, but it doesn’t matter……….no one gives a $$$$!

  • aaronc

    Using helium doesn’t save money. It is at record prices. Using methane instead would give all the lift they needed for less than 1% the price. A blackened balloon would provide even more lift. I agree with other posters that using balloons for radio communications is hardly a novel innovation. People have done it since the earliest days of radio. But they had the sense to use hydrogen instead.

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