The New Age of Military Airships Isn’t Likely to Last Very Long
To anyone at all passionate about airships, New Jersey’s Lakehurst Naval Air Station is Jerusalem. Birthplace and home to the Navy’s lighter-that-air fleet from 1921 to 1962, Lakehurst is where numerous Navy blimps and dirigibles were built, though it is much better known as the place where the Hindenburg met its fiery end in 1937. On Oct. 26, 2011, inside Lakehurst’s massive Hangar One, another seemingly historic moment took place. There, almost dwarfed by the hangar’s vast interior, floated naval airship MZ3A, her rudders proudly emblazoned with red, white, and blue stripes, while on the airship’s side, in giant letters was written: U.S. NAVY. It was a christening, of sorts, a ribbon-cutting welcoming the return of blimps to the fleet after a forty-four-year hiatus.
But that wasn’t all. Only a couple of hundred yards away, in Hangar Six, another, much larger airship was being readied for its first flight. It was called the LEMV (for Long-Endurance, Multi-Intelligence Vehicle) and it was an Army airship. At the same time, back in Elizabeth City, N.C., a third airship was being prepared for its first flight. This one, called Blue Devil 2, was an Air Force project. Three airships; one for each service! For the aged community of former airshipmen, gathered there in Hangar One, it must have been a sweet moment indeed. Now, finally, the second era of military airships was under way.
What had happened? Was it that all the generations of naval aviators trained to have a Pavlovian reaction to poopy-bags had all simply moved on and the ones that had replaced them had no particular prejudice either way about airships? As for the Army and Air Force programs, the explanation was not so mysterious. Three words said it all: Afghanistan, IEDs and appropriations.
The Afghanistan war had been going on for ten years and too many American and Allied soldiers were being killed and maimed by improvised, remotely-detonated explosive devices left hidden along the sides of roads. One way to prevent this would be to have large airships hovering high overhead, monitoring enemy activity and especially their electronic communications. Using on-board electronic countermeasures, the airships might be able to block their detonations and help direct their interdiction. At the very least, they would be able to persistently monitor large areas for insurgent activity, including the emplacement of IEDs. At the urging of two very powerful senior senators, Daniel Inouye and Thad Cochran, the chairman and vice-chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, LEMV and Blue Devil got funded and launched as crash programs. The idea was to get both platforms up and operating and deployed over Afghanistan by 2011 to prevent further unnecessary casualties.
But as encouraging as things looked that day inside Hangar One, the reality was actually quite different from its appearance. To begin with, calling MZ-3A a military airship was a bit of a stretch. It was really just an off-the-shelf commercial blimp, operated by a civilian contractor and manned by civilian crews. It operated as an advanced flying laboratory, a test bed for sensors and monitoring equipment. It had already been around since 2006, doing everything from flight tests in Yuma to monitoring oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon disaster. It had already been deactivated, deflated, and crated once before and, short of a reprieve, was slated for crating again in just a few more months.
But while the MZ-3A may not have had a battlefield role in its job description, both LEMV and Blue Devil did. They needed to prove themselves in combat in order be taken seriously and not get offered up the next time the budget cutter started swinging his axe. But now the Afghanistan war was winding down, or at least the American role in it was, and both airships were running out of time.
LEMV and Blue Devil were both extremely ambitious, unproven systems and they were experiencing difficulties. The LEMV wasn’t a blimp at all, but a hybrid with a rigid, shaped hull, designed to take off aerodynamically, like an airplane, using vectored thrust, before letting the helium-filled gasbag continue the job. It was what they were calling a “crew optional” vehicle that could stay aloft for weeks at a time, carrying an array of sensors and communications equipment. Or it could be used to haul large amounts of cargo.
Blue Devil was a conventional blimp, only massive; 380 feet long with 1.4 million cubic feet of volume. It was designed to hover at four miles and remain in place for up to a week. But what was most ambitious about Blue Devil was its approach to the ISR mission. Besides carrying multiple sensors and countermeasures gear, it also was designed to carry special Argus cameras capable of watching areas of up to 64 square kilometers in size. But most significantly, Blue Devil would have its own on-board computer system to perform analysis, allowing it to transmit data only as needed instead of in constant streams that might strain battlefield networks.
The problem was that its manufacturer had never built an airship that large before, and seriously miscalculated the weight of its tail fins. As a result they were too heavy and had to be redesigned. At the same time the Argus cameras and other sensors weren’t working properly, which caused the first flight milestone to slip by more than a year, from April 2011 to October 2012. The Air Force was starting to get cold feet. During the spring of 2012, Blue Devil’s annual operating costs got revised upwards, putting them at $188 million, far more than the Air Force was willing to pay. On May 23, 2012, the Air Force pulled the plug on the Blue Devil. Orders were sent out for it to “deflate, crate, and head for the gate.” Shortly afterwards, Mav6, Blue Devil’s prime contractor, announced it had divested itself of the airship business.
LEMV had been slipping milestones, but did make its first flight in August 2012, more than a year later than originally planned. In October the Pentagon announced that, what with the continuing drawdown of forces from Afghanistan, they were no longer sure that LEMV would be deployed there.
At this point no one can say what LEMV’s future will be. The Pentagon is expected to begin a harsh series of budget cuts during 2013. Whether the unproven LEMV will be among those getting the axe is not known, but its prospects don’t look good. A Pentagon report recently went to Congress, outlining the critical need for hybrid air vehicles like the LEMV. Whether it will bolster support or simply be ignored, no one will hazard a guess. But one thing is known: The military airship’s biggest Capitol Hill proponent was Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, Daniel Inouye, who died in December. Without him to protect them, the military airship future is probably bleak.
On the other hand, the Navy Airship MZ-3A is apparently still flying. It was recently observed over the skies of the Army’s proving ground in Aberdeen, Md., where it was helping test some of the sensors slated to go aboard the LEMV. But once that is finished, unless another reprieve comes, its operators will also get orders to “deflate, crate, and head for the gate.”