One ISR Airship Ready To Fly, but Others Deflate
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.