|Posted by Jerrald J President on June 30, 2012 at 3:15 AM|
Big Brother is Watching:"Army Preps Spy Blimp"
The U.S. military is preparing for the maiden flight of a football-field-size airship laden with surveillance gear designed to do the work of a dozen drones—and destined for Afghanistan.
The experimental craft, known as the Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, or LEMV, is designed to loiter over combat zones for weeks at a time, outfitted with high-tech sensors that can intercept phone calls, shoot full-motion video or track the movement of insurgents.
With the first flight, the Pentagon may also lift the veil on a project that has been shrouded in secrecy. So far, no photo of the LEMV has been released.
Initial flights of the LEMV are scheduled to occur at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., best known as the site of the 1937 crash of the German passenger airship Hindenburg.
"Once this thing clears the tree line, it's going to be on YouTube," said an Army official.
But first, the LEMV has to get off the ground. The project is months behind schedule, and defense officials said mechanics and engineers from Northrop Grumman Corp., NOC +3.34% the designer of the LEMV, were rushing to put the finishing touches on the giant airship, days ahead of a deadline for a first flight as early as next week.
John Cummings, an Army spokesman, said assembly of the airship was "near completion and engine testing is ongoing."
For months, the project has been the subject of speculation in the specialized aviation press.
Clues as to what the LEMV looks like come from conceptual illustrations, which show a giant, rugby ball-shaped airship emblazoned with the Army logo.
Lighter-than-air surveillance craft are not new: Smaller, tethered blimps known as aerostats are a common sight in Afghanistan, where troops use them to keep an eye out for potential attacks.
But according to military experts, larger airships can carry more cameras and sensors than small blimps, and also allow military commanders to multi-task. For instance, a surveillance airship could carry equipment that would allow it to pick up a phone call, detect its location, and point a camera in the right direction.
Capable of flying at heights greater than 20,000 feet, the airship would be beyond the range of small arms fire or rocket-propelled grenades used by Afghan insurgents.
David Deptula, a retired Air Force general, said airships are potentially cheaper to operate than drones or manned aircraft. "They are exactly the kinds of systems that need to be explored in an era of fiscal restraint," he said.
Mr. Deptula, the Air Force's former head of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, also has a stake in the business: He is a senior executive at Mav6 LLC, another airship builder.
Mav6 had a similar project in the works: The Blue Devil II, a 370-foot long airship packed with surveillance equipment that was also bound for Afghanistan. The Air Force, however, recently canceled that project because of cost overruns and design issues.
The LEMV is a similarly complex project: It's a "hybrid" airship that requires some sort of forward motion to maintain level flight.
It has also encountered hiccups in its development. When the company announced in June 2010 it had been awarded $517 million contract to develop the LEMV, it promised to deliver the first in 18 months. But the Army repeatedly has delayed plans for a first flight.
Randy Belote, a spokesman for Northrop Grumman Corp., said the company "continues to make progress in the development of its state-of-the-art airship."
Beyond the first flight, aviation experts say the debut of LEMV brings a host of practical considerations: How many people would be required to operate it; how to fly the slow, lumbering aircraft all the way to Afghanistan; and how the giant airship will handle the high winds and weather of the Hindu Kush.
One person familiar with the program questioned whether it would live up the promise of weeks-long surveillance.
"I've never been anywhere in the world where the weather was good enough to fly for 21 straight days," this person said.
What's more, the Army will have to figure out one other issue: where in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region to park the massive airship for maintenance.