By Raffique Shah
February 05, 2012
SHORTLY after the PNM government acquired the second or third sky ship (“blimp”) a few years ago, a well-informed patriotic national who resides in the US asked me why they did not consider new surveillance technology like remote-controlled drones. We had a healthy discussion on the issue. I did not understand, nor could I explain, why Martin Joseph and his security advisers opted for the unwieldy “blimp” over the many ultra-modern devices that were then in service from Afghanistan to America.
Later, defending his government’s insistence on relying on the “blimp” as a crime-fighting tool, then prime minister Patrick Manning advised the opposition in Parliament to be very careful when they saw it hovering in the sky. He hinted that it carried equipment that could “peep in your bedroom”, or words to that effect.
The PNM in office credited the expensive sky ship with reducing crime, more so kidnapping, that had grown to epidemic proportions.
We would never know the truth about the ship’s performance, since that would be classified information under national security. What is clear is that criminals could see the monster from a mile or more, and unless they were downright dotish, they could conceal themselves and their weapons, and even wave at the ship’s operators and cameras. Admittedly, because of its low speed and manoeuvrability, it could provide aerial intelligence on static or slow-moving targets at ground level.
But the “blimp” itself is old technology. New surveillance equipment ranges from satellites that can “peep in your bedroom” from outer space, to high-altitude, long endurance unmanned aircraft, a series of drones, and now miniaturised but highly capable aerial devices, the latest of which resembles a humming bird!
Of course, while fighting crime can be classified as war, we are not engaging an enemy that is equipped with shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles. Not now, or in the foreseeable future.
Our law enforcement agencies are tackling criminals who are armed with rusty home-made “carbines” in instances, the odd AK-47 and sub-machine guns, with an array of pistols being their weapons of choice. We do not need armed drones or sophisticated aircraft to battle such lightweights.
However, we must equip our agencies with technology that can serve as efficient crime-fighting tools. In this context, I do not see the acquisition, or even short-term lease, of the Zenith CH-750 as making any sense. This aircraft is described by its manufacturers as a “short take-off and landing kit aircraft to fulfil the demanding requirements of both sport pilots and first-time builders.”
They add: “Designer Chris Heintz has combined the features and advantages of a ‘real’ airplane with the short-field capabilities of ‘ultralight’ aircraft.”
In other words, this is a boys’ toy, something for amateur aviators to play around with. I searched the Internet to find out what law enforcement agency anywhere in the world had chosen it as an intelligence or operational tool. I found none. Which left me wondering why Commissioner Dwayne Gibbs would even consider leasing one, at close to $1 million for a few weeks.
The procurement process is another matter. But the fact that neither the Prime Minister nor National Security Minister knew anything of its acquisition raises further questions. Worse, the Attorney General stoutly defended Gibbs’ action, which was at odds with the line minister and the PM. What’s happening here?
As I pondered this puzzle, I thought I would check on what law enforcement agencies elsewhere are using by way of modern intelligence-gathering or crime-fighting technology. I should add that based on my training and knowledge, I firmly believe that wars—be they guerrilla, crime-fighting, or intelligence-gathering—are won on the ground, not from the air. Ask the Americans who pulverised the Taliban, as well as a few weddings and funerals, from the air, but who, based on a recent leaked report, have failed to dislodge the enemy.
But we live in an age of advanced technology, so why risk the lives of men when machines and devices can do the job? The Montgomery County (north of Houston) Sheriff’s Office recently acquired a six-foot, 50-pound ShadowHawk “helicopter” that flies “with nothing more than a laptop computer and a remote control similar to that used for video games”. It comes equipped with an infrared camera that can clearly read a licence plate from an elevation of 1,200 feet.
Cost? A little over US$300,000. Fuel consumption? One and a half gallons per hour, with a three-hour flight time. It can be refuelled in minutes and take to the skies repeatedly, day or night. It can maintain aerial surveillance of an area (house, vehicle, person) at 700 feet without being heard or seen.
Now, that looks like a useful device. Meanwhile, the Miami-Dade police were about to acquire the tinier Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) at the end of 2011. In a feature on these devices, the Washington Post stated, “Unmanned aircraft, which have already revolutionised warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, are entering US airspace. While drones have already been used to patrol the border and track forest fires, their most controversial use may be as surveillance tools for federal, state and local law enforcement.”
If our security agencies insist on having aerial surveillance equipment to fight crime, then why do they not go after the best? Why saddle us with the opposite to the “blimp”, a woefully inadequate “battimamselle”? The Government cries out that our coffers are running low, so we should seek value for money.
I should add that while the authorities focus on equipping the police with sophisticated technology, a basic feature like networking all police stations and vehicles with a central computer database is still not in place. Theirs might well be a case of “flying before they can creep”.