www.authenticallywired.com … in the end it’s all about disclosure & transparency … (do not automatically accept or reject what I write … do your own research … by the same token do not automatically accept or reject what any “official” says either) … contemplate then draw your own conclusion …
… We need this to fight terrorism … ? ? ?
Check Out This Giant Spy Blimp Before the Air Force Kills It
By David Axe …June 7, 2012 | … 12:00 pm | …
ELIZABETH CITY, North Carolina — Down the road from the Coast Guard air station, past the copse of oak trees, surrounded by fields of leafy collard greens, in a 1,000-foot-long steel hangar built during World War II here in coastal North Carolina, the unlikely dream of an upstart military contractor is about to be literally deflated. In the hangar’s musty gloom, underneath rafters where countless birds perch and spatter the concrete floor 200 feet below with their waste, a 370-foot-long, ultra-high-tech surveillance airship floats just a foot off the ground, tethered to Earth by three metal cables each weighing three tons.
But not for long. The $211 million Blue Devil 2 airship, built for the Air Force by the tiny, Virginia-based company Mav6, is slated for dismantling and storage at the end of this week, bringing to an ignominious end a two-year saga of technological ambition, bureaucratic waffling and vicious politicking. The Air Force no longer wants Blue Devil 2 or anything like it, a reversal from its official position just two years ago on a program that a former Pentagon chief said was “urgently needed.” Now tensions between the Air Force and Mav6 are bad enough that a company employee had to sneak me into the hangar past a pair of Air Force officers just to see the blimp.
There’s a slim chance the story’s not over. The Pentagon — particularly, the Army and Navy — is still keen to build next-gen “hybrid” airships, which combine lighter-than-air buoyancy with thrust from propellers. Mav6 is talking to the Navy about picking up Blue Devil 2 from the Air Force. The company should have the thumbs-up or -down from the sailing branch by Friday, though we’re told it could be weeks before the Navy’s decision is made public. If the Navy passes, an alternative model for overhead military surveillance will deflate without ever taking off.
Mav6, whose key executives include a respected retired Air Force general and a former Northrop Grumman program manager, once envisioned building a fleet of Blue Devil 2 airships to fill an important gap in U.S. surveillance capabilities. Satellites provide a distant, intermittent, wide view from above the world’s battlefields. Spy planes and pilotless drones gather more fine-grain data during missions lasting hours at a time. But there’s nothing in between — no robotic system that can fly, say, a week or two at high altitudes, unblinkingly gazing at vast swaths of territory with a variety of sensors.
Airships, last used by the Navy for sea patrols in the 1960s, seemed to fit the bill. Not only can they fly for long periods, they’re also cheap, costing roughly a third as much to operate as fixed-wing aircraft. Mav6, founded in 2007, wasn’t the only company to see blimps’ potential. Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman pitched a massive airship to the Army for surveillance and transport missions. When the Army picked Northrop for the $500 million airship demonstration in mid-2010, Lockheed turned around and sold its own blimp design to a private cargo company. Northrop got to work on the Army’s Long-Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, or LEMV.
Around the same time, the Office of the Secretary of Defense decided the Air Force needed a spy blimp of its own. “The Blue Devil airship initiative [is] urgently needed to eliminate combat capability deficiencies that have resulted in combat fatalities,” then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote. His opinion was seconded by the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, or JIEDDO, which explores new technology for finding and disabling improvised bombs in Afghanistan. JIEDDO hoped a long-endurance airship would help spot more Taliban bombers.
The Air Force wasn’t exactly passionate about the proposed airship, but it dutifully complied with the Pentagon’s wishes. As the concept developed, JIEDDO lent the future spy blimp its name, an homage tothe agency’s Blue Devil 1 spy planes.
The Army’s more-powerful LEMV is optimized for cargo capacity at the expense of range, so it has a squished shape with a flattish, lift-generating body. JIEDDO and the Air Force wanted an airship tailored not for heavy lifting, but for ultra-long flight time on minimal fuel. That meant a lightweight, streamlined “cigar” shape (to use Mav6′s term) with a perfectly round cross-section. Mav6 paired up with TCOM, the leading manufacturer of the small, tethered blimps that fly over many U.S. bases in Afghanistan to spot potential attackers. Together, the two companies scored an initial $86-million contract from the Air Force to develop the spy blimp. Work began in October 2010. The goal was to send a prototype to Afghanistan in 2011.
It was an ambitious schedule. Building, inflating and test-flying a 1.4-million-cubic-feet airship — the biggest since World War II and roughly the size of a small tanker ship or a nuclear-powered submarine — was hard enough. Mav6 had also proposed to fit the airship with a wide range of sensors, data links and computer processors; on-board controls for a human pilot; and the ability to be remotely flown via radio. “It could change the nature of overhead surveillance,” retired Air Force intelligence chief Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Mav6′s CEO, told Danger Room last year.
The Blue Devil 2 effort quickly ran into problems. In November 2010, as the airship began to take shape in the Elizabeth City hangar, the Air Force shook up the program structure. JIEDDO bowed out. The flying branch transferred the Blue Devil 2′s management responsibilities to a secretive Air Force office called Big Safari, which traditionally oversees specialized reconnaissance planes — planes, not airships.
If the Air Force was lukewarm on Blue Devil 2, Big Safari just “didn’t like” the airship, the Mav6 employee told Danger Room on condition of anonymity: “They tried to terminate it from day one.” On a stormy afternoon this week, I accompanied the employee on a furtive guided tour of Blue Devil 2. We slipped into the poorly lit hangar through a entryway cluttered with decades of industrial debris, emerging in a seven-acre enclosed space so impossibly vast that I felt vertigo gazing up at the curved rafters 200 feet overhead.
Even inside such a gargantuan structure, the Blue Devil 2 still looked impressively huge. The airship’s enormous, tightly-sealed envelope contains enough helium — $350,000′s worth — to buoy the vehicle at 20,000 feet or higher for up to two entire weeks at a time. Two under-slung gondolas contain electrical systems, sensors, computers and controls for an human pilot, although manning the blimp is optional. Six propeller engines help the airship take off and speed it along at up to 100 miles per hour. To descend, the Blue Devil 2 gradually releases helium and, like a punctured party balloon, slowly settles to the ground.
As the Blue Devil 2′s oversight passed to the Big Safari office, Air Force planners added capabilities, and design risk, to the blimp’s original concept. The airship would have to carry multiple cameras plus two electronic eavesdropping systems and redundant communications. Moreover, the airship would have to do a lot of the imagery processing using its own computers, rather than piping down raw data for processing on the ground. The airborne processing requirement would reduce the strain on the Air Force’s communications infrastructure. But it made Blue Devil 2 much, much more complex. The development contract ballooned to $211 million at a time when defense planners were talking about austerity.
When the LEMV, which also has not flown, ran into its own technical problems, Northrop and the Army closed ranks around it. Mav6 enjoyed no such protection. Subcontractors were late delivering the Blue Devil 2′s tail fins, some vital wiring and the airship’s complex software. On top of that, the Air Force ordered Mav6 to go through the long process of getting Federal Aviation Administration certification so the company could put a human pilot on board for tests.
Predictably, the Blue Devil 2′s development schedule slipped a year. The so-called “big Air Force” — the flying branch’s fighter and bomber commanders — proceeded to complain, loudly and publicly. Mav6 actually shot back on its blog, describing the Air Force as a “hostile government customer.”
Last fall, the Air Force cancelled the Blue Devil 2′s much-hyped test deployment to Afghanistan. In March, it ordered Mav6 to stop working on the sensors. And in late May, it issued a formal stop-work order for the entire Blue Devil 2 program. A renewed PR effort by Mav6, which included pitching the Blue Devil 2 as a missile-armed attacker, failed to change the Air Force’s mind. Vocal support from powerful U.S. Senators Thad Cochran and Daniel Inouye was also unpersuasive.
“We were in the final stages of development when they terminated us,” the Mav6 employee told me as we stared up at the airship’s nose. I sensed movement. Though held to the ground by thousands of pounds of steel cable, the airship gently swayed inside its airy roost. The employee estimated the Blue Devil 2 was 95 percent complete when the kill order came down. All that was left was to add the tail fins and some wiring. Flight testing could have begun this month, the company claimed. The sensors could have been added as they became available. Terminating the Blue Devil 2 so close to its first flight “doesn’t make sense,” the employee said.
What went wrong? Officially, the Air Force balked at the estimated $188-million cost of operating the Blue Devil 2 in Afghanistan for a single year. Mav6′s Deptula disputes the figure, and argues that killing the all-but-complete airship prototype will waste the $211 million already invested. The Blue Devil 2 cancellation is “penny-wise but pound-foolish,” Deptula has said.
A savior might be waiting in the wings. When the Air Force began seriously souring on the Blue Devil 2, Mav6 opened talks with other military branches. The Navy, an historical proponent of airship ops, expressed interest. The sailing branch has enjoyed some success testing its much smaller MZ-3A blimp.
The Mav6 employee said he should know by Friday whether the Navy will take over Blue Devil 2. If it declines, the Blue Devil 2 will go into storage. Workers will vent $350,000 worth of helium. The huge envelope, the six engines, the two gondolas — all will be dismantled and packed into shipping containers. Mav6′s future is unclear. It doesn’t really have any other major products.
At what could be the Blue Devil 2′s final hour, a senior Air Force general, intentionally or not, essentially spit on the airship’s grave. “I have [an] interest in hybrid airships,” Gen. Raymond Johns, Jr., the flying branch’s top airlift officer, told Air Force Magazine, praising airships as representing “about one-third the cost of fixed-wing [planes].”
“There may be a huge niche — logistically, operationally — with this hybrid airship construct,” Johns added — perhaps failing to appreciate that his fellow officers just killed a huge airship that was already paid for and almost ready.
… NEED I REMIND YOU … JUST FOLLOW THE $$$ …
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