Military seeks an intelligence-gathering airship

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010; A11

The U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command and the Army Forces Strategic Command are continuing their multiyear search for a futuristic, self-powered, intelligence-gathering airship. The ideal model would be able to linger for more than three weeks over a target area at 20,000 feet, carrying a 2,500-pound payload of signals and imagery interceptors with a view of 173 miles, according to a special notice issued last week.

Its engines would be able to keep a steady speed of 20 knots, but if needed possess an 80-knot "dash speed." Though it is expected to be unmanned and operated from the ground, it may be operated with a crew.

The success in Iraq and Afghanistan of "spy blimps" -- now tethered to the ground but gathering intelligence such as full-motion video used to identify insurgents -- has sparked interest in these new airships.

The ambitious and new five-year program for a 250-foot-long "Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle" calls for 18 months of performance testing "followed by additional tests and demonstrations conducted in Afghanistan," according to the notice. Under special acquisition rules designed to get new companies into the defense business, the winning contracting team will develop the airship, integrate its payload and other systems to keep them working, then test and support the vehicle. If all things work, the contractor is to support operation of the airship and train military personnel to run it during the five-year contract period.

This is not a new program, but one that has gone through many changes. Last year, the idea was to have a consortium of companies build a similar system based on a hybrid airship that Lockheed Martin flew in 2006. Lockheed's "Skunk Works" was to be central. Then, in July 2009, the Pentagon changed its mind and decided to reprogram $5 million to support a different initial acquisition and planning approach for the vehicle, which will be run by the Army Space and Missile Defense Command out of Huntsville, Ala. It will have cooperation from the Air Force and Navy. Now, Lockheed Martin is just one of 51 bidders.

Under this plan, one group will build the airship and another provide the payload of sensors and ancillary systems. Last week's notice is for construction of the airship, but that also includes integration of the payload devices, plus testing to make sure that everything works.

An additional $90 million for the program has received congressional support in the fiscal 2010 budget.

Potential bidders must apply for the documents detailing the requirements. They are classified "for official use only," according to last week's notice. "Office use" means potential bidders can show the documents to subcontractors but not disclose them publicly.

However, in May 2009, the Army posted a draft statement of objectives for the vehicle, and that document spells out the thinking at that time.

"Each individual LEMV can provide up to 173 statute miles line-of-sight at 20,000 feet for target reconnaissance, intelligence, surveillance and other missions in support of the battlefield commander," according to the document.

Although the sensor payloads would be selected by the military, the document said they could include optical or radar surveillance, other intelligence sensors, laser communication and other broadband data relay systems.

The earlier document also calls for control of the ship to be housed in a fixed, land-based command center, but the airship itself should be able to operate from "an austere location," such as a forward operating base. It will be able to be guided back to its home base. A "rapid deflation device" is required to terminate the flight if control is lost and to prevent the sensitive payload from falling into the wrong hands.

It must be able to carry 2,500 pounds in its payload gondola at 20,000 feet and it also should be able to carry 5,000 pounds at 10,000 feet. It should also be able to fly 2,500 statute miles during a three-week, roundtrip mission.

The solicitation also requires three test flights: a low-altitude flight and recovery, possibly from the winning contractor's facility; an operational-altitude flight with station-keeping for "days" over a military range; and a flight of 21 days in an "operational environment," set for spring 2011.

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