The U.S. doesn't know yet who should build the giant prototype airship it wants to have flying over Afghanistan 18 months after the contract award — or exactly how the program should be bureaucratically structured. What backers do know is that the compartment that would house the craft's intelligence sensors and communications equipment should be named for U.S. Navy Lt. Michael Murphy, a Medal of Honor recipient.
Naming the compartment the Murphy Bay says volumes about how and why backers have come so far in selling the idea of a 250-foot-long, unmanned spy blimp that would hover over an area for three weeks at a time.
In June 2005, Murphy was leading a four-man Navy SEAL team on a clandestine mission high in the mountains of Afghanistan when his team came to face to face with some goat herders. The team discussed killing the unarmed men to protect the secrecy of Operation Redwing, the name for their mission to find and spy on an Afghan militant. The SEALs released the herders. Within two hours, bullets and grenades rained from dozens of Taliban fighters, according to an account by the team's lone survivor. Though already shot through the chest, Murphy pulled out a mobile phone and walked out into an open area to call for help. He "knew there was only one place from which he could possibly make that cell phone work: out in the open, away from the cliff walls," wrote the survivor, then-Hospitalman 2nd Class Marcus Luttrell. Murphy made the call as he was brought to his knees by another bullet, and somehow made it back to cover.
The MH-47 Chinook helicopter that his call brought out was downed by a rocket-propelled grenade before it could reach the site. Eight SEALs and eight members of the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment aboard were killed. Luttrell was knocked unconscious and later rescued by Afghans who hid him from the Taliban. The other SEALs died.
The airship backers point to the Murphy incident in making their case for the hybrid, even as they say it was not the direct inspiration for the proposal. The bottom line is that four years after the SEALs died, the only way for the military to conduct a seamless, persistent surveillance mission like Redwing remains to insert a reconnaissance team at great risk, said Air Force Col. Paul Hastert, who has the lead for communications and sensors payloads on the multiservice, Army-led hybrid airship team. Today's Predator and Reaper unmanned planes often are not available to fly for weeks at a time over a single area, and flying them in that role requires a series of complex handoffs as one aircraft comes on line and another lands to refuel or is sent off to view another target.
Enter the Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle (LEMV), for which the Army is planning to release a request for proposals and spend $80 million in 2010. The airship would be a hybrid craft, meaning it would combine the natural lift of helium with the aerodynamic lift and control of an airplane. An operational hybrid airship, starting with a prototype, would bristle with video cameras, eavesdropping equipment and radars. Communications antennas would relay intelligence without the worry of cliffs blocking the signals.
The LEMV would hover over an area for weeks at a time at an altitude of about 20,000 feet. The Army is examining camouflage for it, but one intelligence official said the enemy would probably know the aircraft is there. "So what?" this official said. Life would have to go on for those being watched, and there might be a deterrent effect.
BIG AIRSHIP, BIG QUESTIONS
The Defense Department knows it wants to build the aircraft faster than most equipment, but it has struggled to settle on an innovative bureaucratic approach for doing that. The Pentagon's ISR Task Force, whose job is to deliver additional intelligence coverage to forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, at first embraced the idea of an ISR industry consortium. The idea was to speed the program by reducing the number of contracts that would have to be negotiated between the government and industry. An overarching agreement would be negotiated with the consortium, and the government would tell it which companies to award funds as the government selected the design of the airship and sensors. The idea was to take advantage of a provision of U.S. law called "other transaction authority," which allows the Pentagon to buy prototypes from contractors without being bound by normal government acquisition regulations. The Defense Department would be able to do business with "nontraditional industry partners," meaning companies that don't win U.S. defense contracts.
Dozens of companies formed an ISR Consortium and chose the South Carolina-based Advanced Technology Institute to act as its executive agent. But last month, the ISR Task Force told the consortium via e-mail that it was shifting gears, said David E. Bither, the chairman of the consortium's steering committee.
The task force said it wants to take the hybrid airship airframe out of the hands of the consortium but still use the other-transaction-authority avenue to develop it. As for the sensors and communications equipment in the Murphy Bay, those would still be developed via the consortium.
What was Bither's reaction to the e-mail? "I said it was a surprise and I think the term I used was ‘frustrating' because it was kind of a head scratcher," he said.
No matter how the management structure is settled, one of the nontraditional companies that could figure in the program is Hybrid Air Vehicles, a British firm based at Cardington Air Field. The company is known for its series of SkyCat airships. It is expected to be a competitor against Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, which has flown its own hybrid test aircraft, the P-791. Lockheed would issue only an upbeat statement about its ability to meet the Army's requirements. Hybrid Air Vehicles questioned the feasibility of the Army's 18 month goal.
Advocates said the airship would be able to carry heavier payloads than traditional airships, while staying over a target with a persistence that an unmanned winged plane could not achieve. One of the big challenges will be to show that the airship can survive more than three weeks of flight at 20,000 feet, where the winds can be high and the clouds thick.
Specifically, the Army wants the hybrid to carry 2,500 pounds of payload, resist the force of 30-knot winds and stay on station for up to 21 days to provide "persistent stare," said Army Lt. Col. Robert Hannah, deputy manager of the LEMV program at Army Space and Missile Defense Command.
The aircraft could loiter above forward operating bases or safeguard friendly forces on the move; it could monitor suspected weapon caches, track people slipping through mountain passes and watch for improvised explosive devices, which have been responsible for an estimated 80 percent of coalition casualties in 2009.
The U.S. has fielded winged, wide-area surveillance aircraft to try to untangle bomb-planting networks through forensic analysis, but hybrid backers said an airship could do the job more effectively because of its persistence. A persistent-stare-type craft allows analysts to "rewind the tape" after a bombing and "see who planted it and where it came from, and so on and so forth," said Alan Ram, vice president of Guardian Flight Systems, formerly Blackwater Airships.
On the reliability question, backers are fighting what they describe as a misperception that airships are like oversized balloons ready to pop. If struck by bullets, a hybrid airship would leak helium at a rate equivalent to "sucking water out of a swimming pool with a straw," according to a presentation given by the Navy's Steve Huett, head of the Advanced Development Program Office for Airship Concepts at Naval Air Systems Command. The Navy, which has researched hybrid airships, is supporting the LEMV effort. Huett's presentation made the case that the LEMV's compartmentalized envelope would protect it from a rapid loss of helium should the craft suffer a major tear in its fabric.
The Army Space and Missile Defense Command is conducting a threat assessment, which might affect the hybrid's concept of operations. In one way the LEMV would be easier to hide than traditional aircraft: It lacks tell-tale contrails. The Army might also camouflage it, though Hannah said the command has not decided on a color scheme for the craft. But hovering at 20,000 feet, the LEMV would be beyond the range of most heavy machine guns and shoulder-launched missiles. The shoulder-launched Stinger missile, which the CIA shipped to Afghanistan during the days of the anti-Soviet jihad, has a ceiling of 17,500 feet.
LEMV managers are still awaiting guidance from the ISR Task Force regarding sensors, but the baseline requirement is to have whatever the ISR Task Force's MC-12 Liberty planes have — plus more. That means a full-motion video camera, an electro-optical/infrared sensor and signals intelligence capacity. Hastert said he has been eyeing ground motion target indicators and synthetic aperture radars.
"We are looking for things that are flying today and preferably in the AOR [area of responsibility]," he said, referring to Afghanistan.
According to Hastert, the LEMV will have satellite communications receivers so the hybrid can stay on course even when flying beyond line of sight, plus two data links to transmit video feeds and other sensor information to ground stations. A high-speed optical data link will serve as the air vehicle's main channel to troops in the field, but for those not equipped for that link there would be a radio frequency data link transmitting at 45 megabits per second. The optical link will be valuable, "but if you are not assigned that amount of frequency space, you are not going to be allowed to use it," Hastert said.
The sensors and communications equipment would be housed in the 3,600-cubic-foot Murphy Bay. The bay would have two links to the LEMV proper, one for data and the other power. Likewise, Hastert wants all equipment in the Murphy Bay to be modular: All sensors would use the same gigabit Ethernet to trade information with one another for the purposes of cross-cueing. In addition, vendors would have to make sure that sensors meet the National Imagery Transmission Format Standard for still images and the Motion Imagery Board's standard for video.
The idea is to keep things simple for the future. Hastert said that "if someone has a great idea for a sensor, I want it to be very easy for them to configure it to add it to the LEMV with minimal effort, much less effort than would be required to add a sensor on a typical fixed-wing or rotor-wing platform."
The lighter-than-air industry has embraced the new Army program. Gordon Taylor, director of sales and marketing for Hybrid Air Vehicles, said his company's hybrid airship would expend half the fuel of a winged unmanned plane: "You are not using a lot of fuel to push yourself along if you want to stay in a localized area for a long time," he said.
Ram, of Guardian Flight Systems, doesn't see why the Army should prefer a hybrid, which he considers an unproven technology, over a regular airship — like the remotely piloted Polar Series line produced by his company.
The problem with conventional airships is their buoyancy, Taylor said. Nearly all of their lift comes from helium, so for the craft to take off, the gas has to counterbalance the fuel weight. But what happens when the airship burns the fuel in flight and now must return base to base? It becomes too light to land gracefully, he said. By contrast, "hybrids, because they can fly heavier, use aerodynamic lift and carry considerably more fuel, and then at the end of the day, come back and land because they are heavy."
Ram said that hybrid boosters are overstating their case. Airships often land close to equilibrium, and if they do come in a little light, they can use thrust to pull themselves down to the ground. Hybrids also have a buoyancy issue on landing, he said. The downside to hybrids is that they need to carry more fuel because of the drag on the airframes. "The game with persistence," Ram said, "is efficiency, not how much weight [of fuel] you can carry."
Still, the Army wants an experimental hybrid to be ready in only 18 months.
The winning contractor will have to conduct three test flights, the third being a 21-day flight in an operational environment. That flight is planned for the fiscal year beginning October 2010.
Lockheed Martin Skunk Works said in a prepared statement that its Hybrid Unmanned Air Vehicle, based on the its P-791 prototype, meets all the LEMV program requirements and could be ready for deployment in 2011.
Lockheed declined a request for an interview. The P-791 flew for the first time, at a very low altitude, in January 2006, said Lou Foltzer, a former Lockheed Martin airship program manager. The flight, which took place in Palmdale, Calif., home to the Air Force Plant 42 complex, lasted five minutes and was accompanied by two onboard pilots.
Taylor, of Lockheed's British rival, said the LEMV program poses some challenges, but there are "no show-stoppers." The British company has been flying a 50-foot-long test bed, with a research team from Cranfield University conducting intensive, after-flight analysis. In addition, the firm has already tested the requisite elements of the proposed LEMV (fabrics, propulsion ducts, landing systems, etc.); it is now just a matter of integrating the pieces into a full-sized hybrid.
Taylor said that if his company got funding today, "we could have first flight in 20-24 months and have it certified in 30-36 months" — much longer than the Army's preferred timeline.
The Army based its hybrid requirements on a Navy project that never got off the ground: the Persistent Elevated Reconnaissance Surveillance Intelligence Unmanned System, or PERSIUS. It was going to be based on the P-791. Still, Hannah said, "we are making a very deliberate effort to identify cost, schedule and technical risk as part of our risk mitigation plan" — which might result in the easing off of certain expectations.
Ram said that something, either the deadline or some LEMV requirements, would have to give. "I think the requirement is, at the moment, out of sync with the time frame," he said.
As for funding, the Army last month was still drafting a document that would explain why it should be permitted to use other transaction authority for the LEMV. By law, the authority covers prototypes, raising the question of whether the winning contractor would be able to transition into production of multiple vehicles.
One participant at the first LEMV industry day last year recalled that someone in the audience asked how many prototypes could a company build. "And that question was not answered well," he said.
Even with the questions and hurdles, the LEMV project is the latest opportunity to speed a new type of intelligence craft to the battlefield. Luttrell, the lone survivor of the Murphy incident, has written that his friend deserves a memorial "as high as the Empire State Building."
Murphy might have one at 20,000 feet.