Military interest grows for intelligence-gathering airship

Model could sit over target area, carry a crew

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post / February 18, 2010

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WASHINGTON - The US 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.

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.