It’s a story so convoluted, only Washington could serve it up. Eighteen months ago, the Pentagon’s chief ordered the Air Force to start building a king-sized blimp that could spy on whole Afghan villages at once. That blimp is almost ready for flight testing. But the Air Force doesn’t want to deploy the thing, for reasons both sensible and not. So now a pair of influential senators are demanding that the Air Force send the blimp to the skies above the warzone.
“We believe it would be a significant failure to stop work and not deploy this much needed platform to Afghanistan,” Senators Thad Cochran and Daniel Ionuye complain in a Feb. 14 letter to Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter (.pdf), obtained by Danger Room.
Just two small problems. These senators, though powerful, are pretty famous on Capitol Hill for backing some rather wacky and useless projects. Oh, and there’s a second giant spy blimp that is also scheduled for a flight test soon, and also promised to the generals in Afghanistan.
The airship that’s attracted the senators’ attention is known as Blue Devil Block 2. At 370 feet long and 1.4 million cubic feet fat, it is one of the largest blimps built in this country since World War II. All that size allows it to stay in the air for days at a time at 20,000 feet. And it enables the airship to carry an enormous array of cameras and eavesdropping gear — enough to keep tabs on at least four square kilometers at a time. No other singular eye in the sky could track insurgents for so far around.
No wonder then-Defense Secretary Bob Gates noted in a Nov. 17, 2010 memo (.pdf), obtained by Danger Room, that “the Blue Devil Air Ship initiative [is] urgently needed to eliminate combat capability deficiencies that have resulted in combat fatalities.”
A $211 million crash program was begun almost immediately, with the goal of sending the Blue Devil to Afghanistan before the end of 2011. The contract to lead the development was given to Mav6, a tiny but influential shop drawn from veterans of the Blackwater mercenary firm. David Deptula, the general in charge of Air Force intelligence was so excited about the project, he became the company’s CEO right after his retirement from the military.
“It brings to bear a completely different concept for ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance]: multiple sensors on one platform integrated with on-board processing and storage,” Deptula told Danger Room in January of 2011. “We’ve got the world’s largest ISR payload — and ‘real estate’ to host it, and nearly a supercomputer on board to process what they find.”
But Deptula’s colleagues at the Air Force were never too hot on the program, preferring supersonic jets to slow-moving blimps. They asked for all sorts of changes: older cameras, different eavesdropping antennas. Most importantly, the Air Force insisted that the Federal Aviation Administration certify the blimp — since the thing had the option for a man in the cockpit, and since it was going to have to fly over the United States, at least in tests.
That slowed the crash program. So did all kinds of other setbacks you’d expect from an ambitious, first-of-its-kind tool of war. The avionics arrived late. The tail fins came in extra heavy. Schedules started slipping. Costs grew. Fed up, the Air Force put a 90-day hold on the integration of its payload of spy gear.
Things only got worse when the Air Force added up what it thought it would cost to operate the giant blimp in Afghanistan for a year: $188 million, too rich for a Pentagon that’s supposed to be watching its pennies. The Air Force didn’t include a dime for such operations in its budgets for next year. Despite a flight test scheduled for May or June, the Air Force is expected to cancel the Blue Devil airship program shortly.
That ticked off senators Thad Cochran and Daniel Inouye. And that’s not something the Air Force wants to do. Cochran and Inouye, two long-time backers of all things military, run the Senate Appropriations Committee. They are, for all intents and purposes, the Senate’s moneymen.
“Given the Secretary’s determination that this initiative was urgently needed in Afghanistan to address combat deficiencies, we believe it would be a significant failure to stop work and not deploy this much needed platform to Afghanistan.” they note in their Feb. 14 letter.
“The U.S. Central Command continues to maintain a requirement for this capability,” they add — the generals still want the thing, in other words. So maybe it would just be better to reject the Air Force’s change, and take the program back to its roots. “A number of decisions were made to deviate from the program’s execution plan and baseline capability which has resulted in program cost growth and schedule delays,” the senators write. “We strongly urge you to examine the program and if necessary, descope the program back to the original baseline requirements so that combat troops in Afghanistan benefit from this capability as soon as possible.”
Crossing Cochran and Inouye is inadvisable, given their considerable power of the purse. That’s why it’s particularly unfortunate that some of their substantive ideas for defense are, well, batty. Cochran is famous in defense circles for backing one of the most visible technology flops of the war on terror — a bogus lightning gun that never succeeded in its goal of frying homemade bombs. Inouye’s record is, if anything, more spotty. He was one of the prime backers of the bloated Seawolf attack submarine and the notorious $1.3 billion military highway to nowhere in his home state of Hawaii.
And then there’s the question of what to do with the other giant blimp that’s supposed to be sent to Afghanistan. It’s called the Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, or LEMV. It’s being built for the Army by the defense stalwart Northrop Grumman, unlike the upstarts behind the Blue Devil. And the LEMV has the vocal support of the Army, unlike the Air Force’s oh-so-reluctant approach to its massive airship.
The word in defense circles is that the LEMV has had just as many technical setbacks as the Blue Devil. And while the LEMV has its own flight test scheduled for this month, it’s still an open question whether the Army giant airships will ever reach Afghanistan, either. And wouldn’t that be a classic Washington end to the story: two football-sized war blimps, neither of them actually making it to war.
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