The US government is helping Kenya to buy floating airships that the East African nation needs to conduct surveillance missions in the fight against terrorism, drug trafficking and smuggling of contraband goods, the Business Daily has learned.
The airships, also known as aerostat or blimp, are lightweight aircraft that use balloon air — helium gas — to float and are fitted with infrared cameras that capture a sweeping aerial view of an area that can be used to make response decisions.
Kenya is seeking to acquire the aircraft through the US Department of Defence’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme, which is shopping for the machines in the US market.
The US Department of Defence says on its website that Kenya has placed an order for a 28-metre aerostat with a 1,000-pound payload (weight).
“The purpose of the aerostat(s) is border security,” the US says in a notice inviting bids from security equipment providers on behalf of Kenya.
Security experts said that the aerostat’s surveillance capability is much higher than that of a drone because the floating airship can stay suspended in the air for much longer without refuelling.
The spy balloon also covers a wider area compared to the drone and can stay aloft even with bullet holes.
They, however, have a weakness in the fact that they can only be brought down by tethers that are known to snap during a heavy storm, causing complete loss of control.
Kenya’s northeastern border with war-torn Somalia currently lacks control posts, leaving it vulnerable to smuggling and unchecked human traffic — a situation criminals have used to stage ambushes and retreat into the neighbouring country.
The latest purchase order comes a year after Kenya went shopping in the US for a drone dubbed, ScanEagle, which it is expected to receive by September.
The unmanned aircraft will conduct real-time surveillance on Somalia-based Al Shabaab terrorists alongside monitoring other major crime scenes within Kenya’s borders. Nairobi-based security expert Andrew Franklin said that the spy balloons cost much less than drones.
Kenya’s order for one unit of ScanEagle spy aircraft from US aircraft manufacturer Boeing is estimated to cost the taxpayer about Sh1 billion.
Mr Franklin said the aerostat has been effectively used to gather information about criminals, pre-empt attacks and catch terrorists red-handed as they plant booby traps and improvised explosive devices (IED).
He said American troops have used the balloon in Iraq and Afghanistan to spy and foil attacks by Islamic militants.
Credit: All Africa