One ISR Airship Ready To Fly, but Others Deflate

 - June 1, 2012, 2:15 PM
Northrop Grumman said that the long-delayed first flight of the LEMV hybrid will take place next week. (Image: Northrop Grumman) Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force has lost patience with the Blue Devil 2, inset, and wants to deflate the huge airship even before a first flight. (Photo: Mav6)

Northrop Grumman broke a long silence on the long endurance multi-intelligence vehicle (LEMV) this week, when an official told the website wired.com that the much-delayed hybrid air vehicle (HAV) will fly for the first time next week. Earlier, when contacted by AIN, the sponsoring U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command (USASMDC) declined to predict a date for that event.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force has stopped funding its own persistent airborne ISR project, the M1400 Blue Devil 2 airship provided by Mav6. Both Northrop Grumman and Mav6 had promised to fly their respective airships last fall and deploy them to Afghanistan for trials in January. Both vehicles were designed to be unmanned on station, but with provision for pilots for ferry flights.

Another airship project sponsored by USASMDC, the unmanned high-altitude long-endurance demonstrator (Hale-D) crashed on its maiden flight last July. AIN learned recently that Hale-D contractor Lockheed Martin has since exhausted funding.

Northrop Grumman received a contract worth $517 million for the LEMV in June 2010, including options for a second and third HAV. The company would integrate nine EO/IR, Sigint, radar and communications relay payloads onto a large HAV designed by British company Hybrid Air Vehicles.

A year later, Northrop Grumman LEMV vice president Alan Metzger gave a bullish presentation at the Paris Air Show, saying that the “revolutionary capability” was on schedule and also offered great potential for cargo airlift. The LEMV was inflated inside the cavernous hangar at Lakehurst, N.J., last September.

A USASMDC spokesman told AIN that assembly and integration activities have since continued. “The LEMV is a one-of-a-kind prototype technology demonstration, and as such the first flight will occur when the vehicle is ready,” he added.

According to Mav6, the Blue Devil 2 program is currently 12 percent over budget. The company said it received an initial $137 million contract in October 2010, but subsequent hold-ups in Air Force funding impeded the program’s progress.

The airship is a 1.4 million-cu-ft design with which airship and aerostat maker TCom assisted. The plan was to carry EO/IR cameras, including the new DARPA/BAE Systems Argus IS wide-area system, which would be cued by Sigint sensors, with all processing done onboard. Other sensors were also envisioned, within a plug-and-play open architecture.

The airship was inflated inside TCom’s huge hangar at Elizabeth City, N.C., last September. The three modified Thielert diesel engines and two vectoring Honeywell turboprops were subsequently fitted, as avionics and payload integration continued. But there were problems with the tail-fin design and the electrical wiring.

The Air Force did not request further funding for Fiscal Year 2013, and halted the sensor development last January. On May 20, Mav6 stated that the airship was “90 to 95 percent complete,” but three days later the Air Force ordered the company to deflate and store it.

Mav6 said it would cost $3 million more to fly the airship by “no later than August 31” and that $55 million of funding remains unspent. The company is appealing the stop-work decision to Congress and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Comments

J. James's picture

The Air Force has lost patience with the Blue Devil 2, all right. But the contractor has more than enough of a claim to lose patience with THEM. They illegally withheld their funding for a year- on an 18-month program! That's nearly six months later than regulations allow, with absolutely NO REASON other than to sink the program. Then, when the funding was allowed, they strangled off the cash flow so that the small contractor couldn't even fully staff or pay their subcontractors, leading to delays and headaches.

As if that wasn't enough, the Air Force forced them to make expensive and time-consuming changes to the program, and demanded that they do so on the ORIGINAL timeline and the ORIGINAL budget.

Then, finally, the airship was finished, inflated, and all the various sundries attached to the envelope, except for the tail fins. It's 90-95% complete, and even after all of the malice and grief and illegal obstruction from the Air Force, it was only 12% over budget.

And now, the Air Force, who are apparently the living embodiment of "waste not, want not", are taking the insane option of spending 2.4 million dollars to destroy the vitally-needed airship, rather than the $3-5 million it would take to deliver it in full. With $55 million left in the program.

There is no way that Congress or the Defense Department- both of which were the ones that called for and sustained the program despite the Air Force's stubbornness- will allow this utter madness and sheer waste of taxpayer funds and surveillance capability to continue.

Albert Robbins's picture

There's a wide gulf between winning a contract and being
permitted to prosecute it. The post-award
conference rarely eliminates the greatest problems.

This is particularly dangerous when an unwilling sponsor is forced
to participate because of direction from on high - either Service
Headquarters or Congressional edict. MAV6 could sue, and possibly
be made whole, if it could remain in existence long enough to make
it through an interminable court battle. (Westinghouse battled the
USAF for nearly a decade on one arbitrarily terminated contract.)

Unlike the experimental hybrids, the BD2 was a relatively
straight-forward design. I'd hate to see it destroyed in a fashion similar
to the USAF's destruction of Northrop's Flying Wing.

Perhaps a compromise could be achieved, transferring property developed under this contract in exchange for eliminating further claims against the government.

As Will Rogers opined, if it weren't for lawyers we wouldn't need lawyers.

Heliumhead

Trevor Hunt's picture

I wish MAV 6 good luck getting the stop work order overturned, although I think the chances of that are very slim because the US is planning to give up in Afghanistan.
If you want to see more on airships and the US Army LEMV or other hybrid air vehicles try my company site: www.hybridairship.net or if you just want a laugh, try Gasbags lighter than air comedy web site: www.hybridblimp.net

J. James's picture

I don't think that it's as unlikely as you think. Even if the fighting were to draw down in Afghanistan, they would still want to keep a few eyes on the place, on the cheap of course. You yourself admitted in your website that there are a dozen things you could use a surveillance airship for, not just Afghanistan. If not Afghanistan, then perhaps Yemen or Iraq, or as you suggested, patrolling the borders and seas for drug smugglers.

So you see, it's not so much about the mission being unneeded- it's not- and even if it were, that would put the LEMV in a similar bind(although perhaps less so, considering ease of converting it to a runway-independent cargo hauler). It's about waste. The Air Force has been bent on destroying the Blue Devil 2 since before it's contract was even awarded. It's taken them this long to illegally obstruct the contractor badly enough to give them the phantom of a justification for destroying it completely. The difference is that now it's been built and inflated, and is nearly ready to fly. To destroy it now would not only mean completely wasting the millions of dollars it took to get to this point, but denying the military the desperately-needed surveillance capability the Blue Devil 2 provides JUST as it is within grasp.

And with not even $5 million it would take to finish the program- contrasted with the $2.4 million to destroy it, and with $55 million left in the program- it would be astounding if the Congress and DoD, both of whom are longtime supporters of the BD2 and opponents of the Air Force's obstruction, DIDN'T overturn the work-stop order.

Jon's picture

If there is 55 million dollars of funding left in the program and they only need 3-5 million to complete it, how is it 12% over budget?

J. James's picture

That's the Fiscal Year 2012 funding, not the original funding from the contract. Although the Air Force is bent on destroying the BD2, the Pentagon and Congress have been longtime supporters, and have given the program all the funding it needed. Whether the Air Force allows the contractor to HAVE that money is a different matter, and that bureaucratic red tape is what led to so many headaches with the program.

James Bond's picture

The latest news is that MAV 6 have given notice to almost all their employees and the USAF has told them to remove the electronics and box it ASAP, so only a miracle from Congress can save the devil now.
For those of you following this story I found 2 web sites with good pictures and info on the new hybrid air vehicles:
Hybrid Air Vehicles (UK) Ltd: www.hybridairvehicles.com
Hybrid Pilot Services Ltd: www.hybridairship.net

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