The US Defence Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) has approved the export of reconnaissance aerostats ASRR (Airspace and Surface Radar Reconnaissance) to Poland. The procurement is part of the Polish military programme, Barbara. The aerostats will monitor the airspace deep above Belarus and Ukraine.
The Barbara programme started in 2017. The programme received two major boosts: the second Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and an incident in May 2022 in which a virtually untracked Russian cruise missile, Ch-55, entered deep into Polish territory.
Russian cruise missiles represent a significant challenge to air defence (AD) since they fly at high speeds at low altitudes, following the terrain.
Ground radars cannot cover the entire topography. The only solution was to put radars at altitude for improved visibility. Thus, Poland immediately ordered two Swedish radar and warning aircraft, the Saab 340 Erieye AEW&C (Airborne Early Warning and Control). The first aircraft is already operational in Poland, with the second arriving next year.
The Saab 340 Erieye (S 100 Argus) combines the Ericsson PS-890 Erieye radar with the Saab 340 turboprop aircraft. Stockholm purchased two S 100Ds and two more powerful GlobalEye (S 106) models based on the Bombardier Global 6000 in the autumn of 2021. However, they won’t be delivered until 2027.
The Erieye radar is an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar that weighs 900 kilogrammes and is housed in a nine-meter-long radome. The radar only scans one side of the airspace, between 150° and 160°. Observation beyond these sectors, i.e., up to 20° -30° from the nose and tail, is limited; it detects aircraft but cannot track them continually.
At an operational altitude of 6000 metres, the radar’s maximum range is 450 km. Maritime targets may be detected at 320 kilometres, fighter-sized targets at 370 kilometres, and cruise missiles at 200 kilometres. In addition, the radar can identify hovering helicopters. Erieye can track up to 1,000 airborne and 500 maritime targets at once. The Friend or Foe (IFF) integrated interrogator ranges 450 km.
The next step in upgrading the Polish Air Defense’s detection and tracking capabilities is the purchase of aerostats, which, unlike aeroplanes, enable continuous radar observation of airspace 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at substantially reduced operational costs.
Aerostats will primarily identify and track low-flying objects such as cruise missiles and drones deep above Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Russian territory, including the Baltic Sea area, allowing Polish Air Defence to be activated on time.
Despite numerous benefits, aerostats have several disadvantages, including a “dead radar cone” with a circumference of 40 km and a high susceptibility to destruction during combat due to its fixed nature and delicate structure. On the other hand, the destruction of these aerostats will be interpreted as a clear and direct act of military aggression against Poland and NATO.
Although the DSCA communiqué does not mention the number of aerostats offered, Pawel Bejda, Poland’s Deputy Minister of Defence, confirmed four units for the four scheduled locations. Overall, Warsaw will pay $1.2 billion to the United States for the aerostats.
The DSCA kit includes a radar station (possibly the Israeli EL/M-2083), an Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system, electronic sensors, ground control stations, and winch-equipped anchor systems. Data transmission between the aerostat and the ground station is via optical fibres, which cannot be affected by electronic warfare. Raytheon, TCOM (the aerostat maker), ELTA North America (the EL/M-2083 manufacturer), and Avantus Federal are the primary vendors.
The Polish aerostats’ characteristics are unknown. However, they are most likely based on the American program JLENS (Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defence Elevated Netted Sensor System). From 1996 to 2016, this network of detecting aerostats protected the United States’ airspace. However, the programme ended prematurely due to budgetary difficulties, delays, and mishaps.
The newly established radio-technical battalion, responsible for operating the aerostats, will be headquartered in Červený Bor, Podlaskie Voivodeship. Three sites will serve the northeast region (two in the Warmian-Masurian Voivodeship and one in the Podlaskie Voivodeship). The fourth site will be in the Subcarpathian Voivodeship. The first station is scheduled to be operational by July 2026.
The radio-technical forces are working to improve radar reconnaissance capabilities as part of the Polish Armed Forces’ modernization, which is why an aerostatic radio-technical battalion is being established. The first base will be completed in July 2026, and the WCR Sandomierz recruitment centre on social media X was announced in late November of last year. The first aerostat will be put in one of the Subcarpathian Voivodeship’s locations, most likely at Kurzyna Wielka, where army representatives have held discussions with residents and authorities.
The aerostats will identify low-flying targets across vast distances within the Polish Air Defence, using early warning aircraft such as the Saab 340 AEW (a more advanced platform will be picked later). According to available data, the EL/M-2083 radar station on the aerostats can identify a huge flying object from more than 500 kilometres away and a smaller object the size of a normal fighter jet from about 250 kilometres away. The EL/M-2083 radar almost completely covers the area from Kurzyna Wielka to Kyiv and Minsk in Belarus.
Even tracking ground targets, particularly vehicle convoys, with Ground-Moving Target (GMT) modes could be effective near the Russian-Belarusian border. Similarly, landscape mapping using Synthetic-Aperture Radar (SAR) mode may be useful. It is unclear whether Polish aerostats will adopt such modes.
TCOM provides nine different aerostats with varying sizes and capabilities. The smallest is only 12 metres long, can reach 300 metres, and has a practical payload of 60 kilogrammes (enough to transport the popular Wescam MX-15 electro-optical payload). It is designed for a seven-day continuous flight. The largest aerostat is up to 117 metres long and can carry over 8100 kilogrammes of useful payload. It can stay at an altitude of 4800 metres for 60 days.
Poland will not be the only one to benefit from the aerostats. The generated data will undoubtedly be shared with allies as part of the NATO Integrated Air Defence System (NATINADS). Polish aerostats will greatly improve coalition air defence capabilities, particularly against the danger of Russian cruise missiles.
This Polish capability is especially vital given the dwindling deployability and ageing fleets of NATO and American Boeing E-3 Sentry planes. We’ll see whether other countries follow Poland’s lead and build an “aerostat wall” around NATO’s eastern flank.