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Have Cultural Barriers Blocked LTA Vehicles?

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The military’s approach to airships since 1960 has a number of critics, from retired USAF Lt. Col. Ed Herlik, who worked on high altitude airships for the USAF Space Command, to former combat/test pilot and Pentagon Director of Air Warfare Chuck Myers.

Both have been highly vocal – in speeches and print – about cultural barriers that have blocked the development and use of LTA vehicles because they were seen as budget dollar competitors for more popular, “sexier” manned heavier-than-air aircraft, UAVs and satellites.

Herlik’s criticisms are aimed primarily at the Air Force, while Myers blames a lack of leadership for the Navy’s history. In both cases, they agree that what Myers terms a “just the way it is” culture within the military has blocked the fielding of LTA platforms in the war in Southwest Asia, among other uses, both military and civilian, including Department of Homeland Security border and coastal patrols.

While he agrees with much of what both men say about entrenched military attitudes and resistance to change – especially when it threatens already hard-won funding for programs they do support – the Teal Group vice president and senior aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia believes there also are legitimate arguments for the failure to field LTA platforms in SW Asia.

“In their defense, elaborate space-based and heavy ISR approaches are far more capable for a far broader range of conflicts,” he says of the military’s reticence. “While devising some kind of fast, quickly fielded LTA solution would have helped out in Iraq, it would have been useless in other areas of operations. Even in SW Asia, there is a tendency to see things as a silver bullet – and there are few silver bullets in counter-insurgency (COIN).

“Militaries also tend to stay the course. The U.S. military is a heavy warfighting organization that was slow to retool for COIN. I understand why some people blame the military for not rapidly fielding an LTA ISR platform that could have helped out in Iraq, but I’m also sympathetic to the situation the military is in. You don’t want to reconfigure your entire military for what might be a one-off problem.”

Nonetheless, Aboulafia also agrees with Herlik and Myers that LTA platforms have a broad range of potential applications, both military and civilian.

Herlik, a 1980 Air Force Academy graduate who is now a managing partner and the lead aviation analyst for Market Intelligence Group, ended his military career at Air Force Space Command, where he worked on survivability issues for high altitude/long endurance (HALE) airships, a project then-USAF Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper (2001-05) had ordered Space Command to pursue.

“It was given to Space because the vehicles operated more like satellites than airplanes and Space Command had more operational experience with making something work that doesn’t go away,” Herlik tells The Year in Defense. “It was succeeding so well that, when we cracked the last knot – survivability – and proved airships could go places people didn’t think they could go, they became a threat to other budgets and could not be tolerated anymore. So they went away – not because they did not work, but because they were going to work.”

An artist’s conception of Lockheed Martin’s High Altitude Airship design for DARPA’s ISIS  (Integrated Sensor Is Structure) program. Image courtesy of Lockheed Martin.

But Herlik goes far beyond budget conflicts and cultural differences between the Air Force and Army. He claims Air Force Space Command not only violated orders, but should be held accountable for ground force deaths airships could have prevented.

“Jumper’s order on airships was never rescinded, just illegally overridden, and, as a result, up to half the casualties in combat since the summer of 2006 were unnecessary. And that’s a monstrous scandal,” he claims. “That summer, we were on track to fly a prototype over Iraq. Those were small, maybe 50-pound payloads – one decent camera and a couple of radios. You can put one of those together in a day, so once you had a final design from the prototype, you easily could have launched three a week anywhere you wanted. And it only takes three to cover Baghdad.

“If you make Baghdad suicidal for a bomb-maker, pretty soon the bombings stop. That’s the result of backtracking, where three airships that never go away can follow the bomb-setter back through the video history to where he got the bomb. Take away effective truck bomb-size IEDs and what do you have left? With backtracking, even a successful attack will put the bomb-maker in jeopardy. And the only way to defeat that is to bring the bomb in from outside the airship footprint. But with only three required to cover such a large area, you can quickly and cheaply expand that footprint.”

Beyond jettisoning their own program, he continues, Space Command kept the funding, depriving the Army of money it needed to continue the effort.

“It was a cultural problem – airships operate in the atmosphere, Space Command doesn’t. The Army, meanwhile, doesn’t care how something works, they just want it to work. So the Army is doing it because they need it and nobody else will do it for them,” Herlik argues.

The technologies involved in airships – from fabrics to sensors – have been resolved, which is why DARPA has only one remaining LTA effort – ISIS – which is nearing completion, he continues.

“Airship technology is no longer ‘DARPA-hard’. Airships are basically solved – and were more than two years ago, by DARPA,” he argues. “ISiS is huge, so DARPA is solving a much, much harder problem than just putting 50 pounds of cameras over someplace.”

Meanwhile, he adds, the Army, by concentrating on low altitude platforms, is on the wrong track, especially for Afghanistan, where the current need is greatest.

“While I applaud the Army space guys for getting anything into the air, their HiSentinel, technologically, can never work. It is a soft bag you launch soft with hard, clunky things inside. So naturally it will die on the way up,” Herlik says. “As far as extreme altitude goes, one could be put together and flown in a matter of months. All the parts exist. So it is really just a matter of will, very much like the history of UAVs, which the Air Force hated until somebody else killed somebody with one, then they were all over it.”

Without any major technology hurdles remaining, Herlik claims, the future of airships is really a budget battle colored by entrenched cultural biases.

“ISiS’ job is coastal defense – and where is that in terms of budget priorities? Nowhere near making sure North Korea doesn’t do some rogue launch,” he says. “If you can stick a UAV over the launch point of a missile and toss out a handful of marbles, the missile is dead. And that is far more likely than ISiS. However, the systems developed for ISiS will be hugely useful to smaller platforms.

“You absolutely must have a persistent platform and there is no way to do that with conventional UAVs. And if you can’t do it with UAVs the Air Force will fly – and they refuse to fly the ones that will work for that mission – the ground troops are thoroughly screwed.”

Where the military is failing to act, however, Herlik believes commercial users will – and their likely success will raise a lot of questions about why the military did not have airships flying over SW Asia.

“It is my job to calculate how cheap technology is and forecast markets. The hotspot is roughly $27,000 an hour for Global Hawk; Predators are about $9000/hr. To fly persistent capability with current aircraft, the numbers are startling, upward of $2.8 million a day to cover a 13-mile wide camera footprint from 60,000 feet,” he says. “To do the same job with an airship costs about $1500 an hour or $36,000 a day, plus $6 million for an aircraft you vaporize at the end of the year. You can buy all the parts you need for just $4-to-$6 million; it’s really not all that difficult.

“That makes them extremely threatening to everybody from a budget standpoint – but extremely attractive to commercial groups. So it appears commercial, non-government entities clearly will build and fly these things before the government does, which actually will be tragic, because people will begin to ask, if a cellphone company can fly them, why didn’t the military?”

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...