Iraq recently bought seven Aerostats and 14 RAID towers from the United States in order to provide persistent vidcam and radar surveillance of large areas. The aerostats and towers were key American security tools in Iraq and Afghanistan where the U.S. used over 300 towers and dozens of aerostats. Some American allies used this equipment as well. Iraq is paying about $90 million for the aerostats, towers, sensors, associated equipment, training, spare parts and tech support.
The aerostats (tethered blimps) float at about 300 meters (a thousand feet) up, tethered by a cable that provides power and communications to the radar and day/night vidcams up there. The cameras can see out to 80 kilometers at that altitude, less than half that with a radar. The major problem is not weather, but ground fire from rifles and machine-guns. Locals like using the blimps as targets. Rifle fire won't destroy the blimps, but does cause them to be brought down more frequently for repairs. Normally, the blimps can stay up for 30 days at a time, but the bullet hole repairs can cause them to be brought down every few days.
Shorter steel tower systems also suffer gunfire damage, but rarely any that damages the equipment. It was soon found that tower mounted cameras were just as good as the aerostats, in most situation, and much cheaper. Thus there are more than twenty times as many tower systems as aerostat based ones in use.
In Iraq and Afghanistan the towers were introduced in 2003 and the aerostats a year later. The U.S. would set up the towers even for temporary bases. The tower provides the equivalent of a permanent UAV presence, which, just by being there, tends to discourage attacks, or any misbehavior in the vicinity of the base. The tallest tower is 32 meters (107 feet) tall allowing cameras to spot vehicles up to 25 kilometers away. Great for keeping an eye on thinly populated areas in a desert, which western Iraq has plenty of. The nine meter (30 foot) tower can see out to eleven kilometers, the 18 meter (60 foot) tower out to 16 kilometers and 25.5 meter (84 foot) tower out to 20 kilometers. The nine meter tower was adequate for most situations, which usually involved guarding a base, but the taller towers also served as a communications relay for widely dispersed troops. The towers were designed to be easily taken apart or erected by troops.
Before leaving Iraq the U.S. developed and installed several upgrades to the sensors and software used in the aerostats and towers. The best of these was a system that combined communications and electronic eavesdropping gear and software, with day/night camera towers, to produce BETSS-C (Base Expeditionary Targeting and Surveillance Sensors-Combined). These systems also contain a laser range finder and designator.
The U.S. Army also installed AN/ZPY-1 Starlite lightweight radars in some aerostats. This combination was very popular in Afghanistan. The Starlite radar weighs 29.5 kg (65 pounds), occupies 34 cc (1.2 cubic feet), uses 750 watts of power and costs about $2.3 million each. The Starlite was originally designed for use in the army's new 1.5 ton MQ-1C Sky Warrior UAV. Starlite can deliver photo quality black and white radar images of what is down there, in any weather. The army has developed software that enables the Starlite images to be transmitted to existing army video terminals, and automatically appear on electronic versions of standard army maps. Starlite is used in combination with vidcams and heat sensors (infrared or thermal).
It is unclear exactly which sensors, and supporting software, the Iraqis will be allowed to buy. Given the heavy influence of Iran inside Iraq it has to be assumed that any military equipment sold to Iraq will be examined by the Iranians.