The U.S. Army Almost Had All-Seeing Spy Airships

The U.S. Army’s dream was a fantastical one. Build a 300-foot-long, helium-filled, pilotless airship, pack it with sophisticated sensors and other spy gear and park it over the remotest, most dangerous region of Afghanistan, where it would hover for three weeks at a time beyond the range of enemy gunfire, unblinkingly watching for enemy activity. But the Army’s plan for building this so-called Long Endurance Multi Intelligence Vehicle, or LEMV, turned out to be just as fantastical as the vision for the giant robot airship. Badly managed and repeatedly oversold by its advocates, the LEMV’s prospects gradually deflated even as rising expectations across the military added pressure to the airship’s development. Originally meant to cost as little as $150 million and go from blueprint to working prototype in just a year and a half, the giant airship drifted out of control. Between 2010 when the program began and its termination in early 2013, the cost of just one LEMV ballooned to $270 million. And the schedule for completing the airship stretched from 18 months to 36. The first LEMV managed just one brief flight over New Jersey in August 2012 before an embarrassed Army pulled the plug.
The subsequent sucking sound could be heard throughout the Pentagon, so to speak. While program mismanagement and budgetary overspends are nothing new to the Army, rarely have they had such devastating effect on an entire promising class of technology. That’s because LEMV was the military’s last, best chance to revolutionize its aerial fleet with high-tech airships able to fly far longer, far cheaper, than existing warplanes. It’s no exaggeration to say that as the LEMV program sank to the ground, it dragged with it the Pentagon’s whole ambitious scheme to acquire futuristic war blimps.

Unblinking eyes

Airships fought on the front lines for nearly a century. Hundreds were built for use in World Wars I and II. The U.S. Navy, one of the last major military airship users, finally retired its fleet of patrol blimps in the 1960s and replaced them with airplanes and helicopters. For nearly 50 years the idea of lighter-than-air weaponry lay dormant, giant abandoned hangars in California, New Jersey and North Carolina the only evidence of its glorious past. Then the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and found itself hunting elusive insurgents in crowded Iraqi cities and the vast Afghan countryside. Bad guys could hide out for days or weeks before striking. Planes, copters and even unmanned drones lacked the endurance to wait out these patient attackers.
So the Army installed video cameras on simple, tethered balloons and sent them thousands of feet into the air to watch over combat outposts. It was a small conceptual leap to untether the airship, add motors and remote controls and use them to patrol vast swaths of hostile territory for potentially weeks at a time — far longer than any manned aircraft or winged drone can manage. And cheaper, too. Because of their buoyancy and relative simplicity, airships are highly fuel efficient and easy to maintain and thus cheaper than heavier-than-air craft, in many cases. A jet fighter like an F-16 can cost $20,000 or more per flight hour for fuel and repairs. Large airships generally cost as little as a third as much per hour. The added flying time and potential cash savings of spy blimps compared to planes and copters intrigued planners in offices all over the Defense Department. The secretive Joint IED Defeat Organization, tasked with developing bomb-hunting technologies, wanted a cheaper way to watch for insurgents planting roadside bombs. With a budget of more than $200 million, JIEDDO teamed up with the Air Force and Mav6, a Virginia-based aerospace start-up, to develop the Blue Devil II unmanned airship starting in 2010. Blue Devil would be a traditional blimp, its lift provided entirely by light, expansive helium gas. But on the inside, Blue Devil would pack some of the most sophisticated — and expensive — sensors and communications hardware ever developed. By contrast, the Army wanted a somewhat more complex airship with less complex gear. The LEMV would be a so-called “hybrid airship,” which gets its lift from a combination of helium and also a flattened body that acts somewhat like a wing. Starting out, the LEMV’s cameras and radios would be roughly the same as those already used by Army drones. LEMV and Blue Devil had similar technology and aims and began at around the same time; they couldn’t help but compete for funding. Moreover both new airships were supposed to be ready for combat trials in Afghanistan in 2011. The frontline testing would be expensive: $190 million for a year’s flying for just a single airship, according to one estimate. It wasn’t at all clear that Congress and the Pentagon would be willing to fund both. “We are doing this to protect the soldiers on the ground,” Marty Sargent, the Army’s airship project manager, said of LEMV. But the giant blimp was also vying with the Air Force’s Blue Devil for another important role: clearing a flight path for a new generation of lighter-than-air war machines.

Faster, faster!

Cracks appeared in the program even before it went out for bids. Eyeing LEMV like a choice cut of technological steak, the Army’s top intelligence staff, then headed by Lt. Gen. Richard Zahner, wanted it for itself, according to one program insider who asked to remain anonymous. Normally major weapons development programs for the Army are overseen by a dedicated organization with an unwieldy name: the Office of the United States Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology — a.k.a., ASA-ALT — whose sole job is to formulate specs, solicit bids from industry, draw up contracts and oversee the contractors’ work. But the intel staff was determined to handle much of that work itself with bureaucratic reinforcements from the Army’s missile command, despite the intel staff and the missileers lacking experience managing new technology. “We took it on for ourselves, because it is our soldiers that are going into these regional conflicts where we may not get the apportionment of strategic [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance],” explained Lt. Gen. Mary Legere, who succeeded Zahner in early 2012. To keep the unusual development scheme afloat, the intel staff sought money directly from Congress instead of asking ASA-ALT to arrange for funding, which was standard procedure. After all, the staff had undercut ASA-ALT and could not expect favorable treatment for its giant spy blimp. To convince a skeptical Congress, the intel staff promised LEMV would be ready fast — just 18 months from the signing of the development contract. The year-and-a-half deadline proved to be a fatal flaw. Allocating just 18 months for such a complex technology development was ambitious, to say the least and forced LEMV’s builders to cut a lot of corners. “A development timeline of twice as long would still be counted as aggressive,” Mav6’s Jay Harrison commented.

Lowest bidder

At first there was competition. Aerospace giants Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman both wanted the LEMV contract, worth up to $517 million for several years of work designing and building as many as three huge airships plus all their on-board gear. Lockheed was the clear frontrunner. The Maryland-based company already had a suitable airship in the air, the P-791. All the firm would have needed to do was add cameras, radios and other internal gear — admittedly a complex task. By contrast, Northrop in Virginia had no hardware at all and would have to assemble the LEMV blimp and its sensors and comms from scratch. Everyone in Army intel assumed Lockheed would win. The intel staff even put the Lockheed airship on all the program’s flyers, posters and other promotional material. But when it became clear how quickly the Army expected LEMV to be ready, Lockheed got cold feet. The Maryland company insisted it would take three years, not a year and a half, to complete the airship — even with the basic airframe already flying. “Lockheed basically gave the contract away,” Harrison explained. Northrop insisted it could meet the 18-month deadline and won the contract by default in June 2010. Program manager Sargent defended the close deadline. “We are on a tight schedule but we want this to be successful for the Army and all services,” he said.


Problems piled on. Lacking direct airship experience, Northrop subcontracted with British blimp-maker Hybrid Air Vehicles for the basic LEMV airframe. HAV struggled to build the airship on the Army’s truncated timeline. “It’s not as though components were ready and you could just buy them,” said Hardy Giesler, HAV’s business development director. The British firm had to acquire custom-made LEMV components. “They were told to move faster,” the anonymous program insider said. “In doing so, [HAV] didn’t focus on weight of the parts, but rather the speed of getting them to the States.” Torn between building the airship well and building it fast, the Army chose fast — and paid the price. Parts began arriving at a massive, World War II-era government airship hangar in Lakehurst, New Jersey, for final assembly. The components were “massively overweight,” the insider said — and as a result the airship would be capable of staying aloft for just four days instead of three weeks, as the Army had promised. In November 2011, panicked managers from the Army, Northrop and HAV met in the U.K. It was clear that the original 18-month schedule would have to be revised, as would LEMV’s ambitious performance specs. LEMV’s first flight, originally slated for no later than December 2011, was bumped back to an unspecified date in mid-2012. The much-hyped combat trial in Afghanistan was deferred indefinitely.

Blue Devil’s demise

The collapse of the Pentagon’s other airship effort in early 2012 increased the pressure on LEMV at precisely the moment the latter program was struggling the most. After two years of work costing more than $200 million, Blue Devil was 95 percent complete, inflated with $350,000 worth of helium, gently bobbing in Mav6’s North Carolina hangar awaiting the installation of cameras and radios. That March the Air Force abruptly pulled the plug on Blue Devil, citing weight growth, schedule delays and cost overruns. “It doesn’t make sense,” one Mav6 employee mourned. The tiny company would later divest all its aerospace activities. Blue Devil’s demise left LEMV as the military’s only major airship program. But the Army airship was suffering all the same problems that had plagued the Air Force model, albeit in near-total secrecy. The Air Force had publicly criticized Blue Devil’s troubled development. By contrast, the Army and Northrop cheerily reported only steady progress on LEMV despite repeated delays. “We’re about to fly the thing!” Northrop spokesman K.C. Brown, Jr., crowed in May 2012. Six tons overweight, tens of millions over-budget and months late, the first LEMV took off for its debut flight that August. For 90 minutes the football-field-length airship motored at low altitude over the forests and fields of central New Jersey, returning as the sun was setting. Although meant to be robotic, for the initial flight LEMV had a pilot aboard. “LEMV was designed, built and flown in a short 24 months, a considerable accomplishment for a vehicle of this scale and complexity,” Northrop boasted in a statement — as though a mere six-month delay (it was actually nine months) weren’t a total disaster for a program sold on the promise of an 18-month development. Word within the Army was that it would take another year and an extra $60 million to shave off weight, install more equipment and prep the LEMV for a second test flight in New Jersey — never mind operational missions over Afghanistan. The additional delay could not have come at a worse time. After 11 years of fighting , the war in Afghanistan was winding down. Budget cuts were forcing the Army to cancel all but the most critical weapons programs. “I kind of knew … this thing wasn’t going back up again,” the LEMV insider said. Among junior program staff, conversations turned to what-ifs. What if the airship had been developed earlier — say, 2005 or 2006 — instead of nearly a decade into the war? What if the Army had been realistic about the time and cost of assembling the airship? What if experienced program managers had been in charge? What if the Pentagon had been able to get a new airship — any new airship — off the ground, for real? Under his desk in Washington, D.C., the program insider kept a box containing miniature foam replicas of the LEMV, toys for handing out at trade shows. The tiny scale LEMVs would soon be among the only evidence the Army had even wanted a giant, robotic spy blimp. For nearly another six months after LEMV’s first flight, the program was pretty much in limbo, its fate obvious but never officially stated. The intel staff made half-hearted overtures to ASA-ALT asking if the managers there could maybe find more money for LEMV, but ASA-ALT, previously scorned by the intel staff, blew off the requests. And in February 2013, Legere, the intel chief, called 900 of her staffers to a meeting in the Pentagon to talk about budget cuts, including the possibility of furloughs. Toward the end of the discussion Legere surprised everyone by bringing up LEMV, the insider recalls. “Some of you may have heard we are going to cancel this project,” Legere said, according to the insider. “You would be correct. Let me tell you all something. I’d rather pay you all of your money than allocate funds for this ridiculous, stupid project again.” LEMV was dead. And with it, any chance the Pentagon had to acquire a next-gen airship. The prototype was deflated in late May 2013, its pricey helium venting into the air, impossible to recover. HAV, the British airframe-maker, began negotiating with the Army to buy back the blimp components for the company’s own use. Afterward, the Army tried to distance itself from the program’s failure, portraying LEMV mostly as a victim of circumstance. “With the reduced U.S. presence in Afghanistan coupled with the technical challenges and limitations of constrained resources, the Army made the determination to discontinue the LEMV development,” service spokesman John Cummings said. But the insider had a different view. “Army management at the highest levels failed LEMV.” And failed the entire concept of a future war blimp. David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix, War Is Boring and Machete Squad.

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