A Persistent Ground Surveillance System (PGSS) aerostat undergoes predeployment testing at a U.S. Naval Air
Systems Command (NAVAIR) training facility in Yuma, Ariz., May 25, 2011. Developed by NAVAIR’s special surveillance
program, the PGSS deploys in theater with Reserve component and contractor personnel to provide force protection
for forward operating bases in the U.S. Central Command Area of Responsibility.
build many of the aircraft — Tcom Corp., Elizabeth
City, N.C., and Raven Aerostar, a division of Aerostar
International of Rapid City, S.D., Shen said. Once aloft,
they provide surveillance sensors that include full-motion video and sensing imagery, connected to
ground stations by fiber optic tethers.
“Before the PGSSs were there, small to medium
FOBs had to depend upon UAVs, which they had to
request from assets in theater,” Shen said.
Fixed-wing UAVs proved to be expensive, limited by
the amount of fuel they can carry, and complex to operate and control, Shen said. Aerostats are cheaper, simpler
to use, can stay on station for longer periods of time, and
are relatively resilient. When they are taken down for
repairs, it is not uncommon to see the aerostats riddled
with bullet holes. But because the differential pressure
between an aerostat and its surrounding atmosphere is so
low, Shen said, they tend to remain aloft anyway and are
hard to shoot down. Contractors operate them in theater
under formal business arrangements with NAVAIR.
“At this point, we are in 59 operational sites in theater, and have logged more than 600,000 combat flight
hours,” Shen said.
This is a considerable leap, Shen said, from the initial
order to deliver four systems in theater. That order quickly grew to 14, then doubled to 31 and now sits at 59.
Whenever combat patrols walk past a PGSS opera-
tor, Shen said, “They come in and thank them for
detecting IEDs [improvised explosive devices] before
convoys get there. They’ve saved lives. It’s very appar-
ent they need these systems.”
Shen credits Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B.
Carter for backing the program when the urgent
request first reached the Pentagon nearly four years
ago. It was Carter, Shen said, who played a key role in
starting the joint concept technology demonstration,
with NAVAIR and Army G2 (intelligence).
As U.S. forces begin withdrawing from Afghanistan
under policy outlined by President Barack Obama,
Shen said, the Army will take over the aerostat program sometime next year.
While fixed-wing UAVs have their limitations, Shen
said the Navy still continues forward with programs
that use the Tiger Shark tactical UAV, built by General
Dynamics Corp. The aircraft can be configured to conduct surveillance missions or carry weapons payloads,
and have served in Operation Enduring Freedom
Tiger Shark completed tests last April at Yuma
Proving Ground, Ariz., which involved a joint payload
of surveillance gear and weapons systems. The future
of the project, Shen said, hinges upon funding. ■