Military Blimps Report for Duty
In the era of $300 million fighter jets, satellite-guided rockets and complicated battlefield computer networks, Multimax Inc. is trying to revive an old-fashioned technology to thrust the information technology firm onto the front line. The Largo company has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on this new project, the design looks like an elliptical UFO, but the result will be familiar: It's a blimp.
"It is somewhat uncharted waters" for the firm, said Ron Oholendt, a retired Air Force colonel and the program manager. The company has enlisted help from NASA and scientists at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, which is analyzing the design, and last year began hunting for support from the Pentagon, Department of Homeland Security or the Director of National Intelligence. With $14 million, the company could finish building and test a prototype for its airship, which they call the Maxflyer, Oholendt said. The company plans to submit a proposal for the system with the Homeland Security Department on Friday, he said.
Multimax is one of several defense companies pouncing on the military's renewed interest in using high-flying, unmanned, helium-filled balloons -- sometimes tied to the ground with a long rope -- as possible weapons. Lockheed Martin Corp. is developing a blimp that it says will reach an altitude of 65,000 feet, while Raytheon Co. is developing one designed to reach 10,000 feet and be tethered to the ground. Blackwater USA, better known as one of the largest security contractors in Iraq, expects to finish its prototype, which aims to reach an altitude of 5,000 feet to 15,000 feet, in December.
The military's interest is driven by a search for cheap alternatives to satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones. Some low-flying versions are already in Iraq, Afghanistan and along the U.S.-Mexico border. The blimps are known as airships or aerostats, a type that is tethered to the ground, and can stay up longer than the unmanned aerial vehicles popularized by the Iraq war and are cheaper than military satellites that can take years to launch, supporters of the technology say.
"They can stay aloft very efficiently for long periods of times," said Col. Jeff Souder, product manager for an Army program. An airship is "somewhere around five to seven times less expensive than a manned aircraft per hour, and it would be greatly less expensive than satellites."
The market is still small, but analysts say it could develop into a multibillion-dollar industry if the technology can survive the pitfalls that led to its initial demise, including being shot down by enemy gunfire or falling prey to damage by bad weather. "They make a heck of a big target in the sky, but it's possible they could have communications, missile-detection and other applications," said Michel Merluzeau, director of military airborne systems at Frost & Sullivan Inc., a research firm. "They still make a very big blip on a radar screen, so you can't put them too close to the enemy."
The experiment harkens back to the military's use of blimps to hunt for submarines on the East and West coasts during World War II, historians say. "In the '20s or '30s, the Navy would send them out ahead of battleships to find the enemy and radio back," said Jack Green of the Naval Historical Center. "They would go out for days and possibly weeks."
But there were problems. Once, a Navy crew fired on a German submarine off the Florida coast with 50-caliber machine guns, and the blimp they were riding in was shot down.
By the early 1960s, the manned airships had fallen out of favor. Also, Green said, the Navy was turning to fast-moving fighter jets. "You just didn't need this slow, hovering thing anymore. A blimp can't chase a nuclear powered submarine," he said.
And that might have been the end of the military's use of airships if not for the Iraq war. In 2003, after being approached by the Army, Raytheon modified an aerostat it had been developing to fly at about 1,000 feet while tethered. Fitted with sensors and cameras, more than 20 of the company's systems are now in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lockheed delivered a similar system to Iraq in 2004.
The Pentagon has since invested millions of dollars more on advanced versions of the technology. Raytheon's system, for which the Pentagon has set aside more than $1 billion, will be three-fourths the size of a football field and is expected to have its first test flight in 2010.
Tethering has its advantages. There is little worry that a strong wind will blow the system away, said Souder, the program's project manager. But the Army will have to devise policies to ensure that air traffic doesn't run into the rope, he said. "It surely could accidentally" be cut, he said, but we "have a number of ways we're going to seek to protect the tether."
Bethesda-based Lockheed is developing another system for the Missile Defense Agency, known as the High Altitude Airship, which the company says will be 17 times the size of the Goodyear blimp. Stationed offshore, the system could provide surveillance of the United States, monitoring ground and air traffic, said Ron Browning, Lockheed's director of business development on the program.
The company developed a man-made fiber stronger than the polyester-type material often used on blimps to guard the system from drastic weather changes at 65,000 feet and UV rays, Browning said. And the company is confident its system could even survive enemy fire. "You could sustain some holes in the bag without any immediate concerns," he said, noting that its low air pressure means that gas escapes slowly. "It's a fairly survivable aircraft given that it's a large envelope filled with helium."
But the program has already run into some funding problems. Lockheed originally said it would finish a prototype this year, but that has been delayed until 2009 or 2010.
The burgeoning market has already had its first casualty. In 2005, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency awarded contracts to Lockheed Martin and Aeros Aeronautical Systems Corp. to develop a blimp-like system to move troops and equipment to hot spots. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that such a program could potentially be worth about $11.3 billion. "Although not as prompt as conventional aircraft, hybrid airships could still begin arriving in the Persian Gulf region from the United States in about five days," the CBO said in a report.
But after investing $8 million, DARPA did not get the $20 million it wanted for the program this year. "That one had a slightly high giggle factor. It just looks too much like the Hindenburg," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org. "I think there was just conceptual push back on it."
And some firms are finding it difficult to crack the market.
The day after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, "we started marketing to the government market," said Curt Westergard, president of Falls Church-based Digital Design & Imaging Service Inc. "We have shown this to the Coast Guard, Army, Special Ops people, force protection units, many of the police people in Arlington, Washington, D.C., people from three-letter agencies."
But, so far, no contracts have emerged for the airship, which he leases to commercial clients for $2,000 to $3,000 a day and is about the size of a Volkswagen bus. "I am not complaining, it's just disappointing," he said.
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