I remember being at Lakehurst Naval Airbase in New Jersey some 10-plus years ago watching the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels doing some amazing maneuvers during an air show. We were along the flight line, a safe distance from the aircraft flight path, and on my 10 o’clock I could see a massive old airship hangar in the distance. It simply was an artifact of the days when the ill-fated Hindenburg was destroyed in a terrible accident there on May 6, 1937. Never did I think that maybe someday airships might return there or that they would even be useful in any tactical way to the military.
Well, in May 2006, the MZ-3A lighter-than-air vehicle (LTAV), owned by the U.S. Navy, began regular flight operations at the airbase until 2007, when it was stored away in hangar six at Lakehurst. This airship was used on July 5, 2010, to assist in the BP oil spill recovery operation in the Gulf of Mexico. It patrolled the shoreline from above, direct skimmers trying to corral floating oil and look out for wildlife in harm's way.
Even more exciting is the U.S. Army’s new Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV), a football field-sized hybrid airship weapons system. The Army awarded a $517 million agreement to Northrop Grumman to develop up to 3 LEMV systems. These systems are designed with plug-and-play capability to readily integrate into the Army’s existing ground station command centers and ground troops in forward-operating bases, with the main objective to provide U.S. warfighters with persistent ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) capability to increase awareness of the ever changing battlefield. (See Figure 1.)
Figure 1: The Army’s LEMV (courtesy of Northrop Grumman)
Can it be that we might see a revitalized “blimp” air base in Lakehurst again? (The word “blimp” is said to come from a British military competition before WW I where two types on non-structural limp airships, an “A” model and a “B” model, underwent evaluation. The “B” model won — hence the funny-sounding “blimp.”)
This program is a high-tech twist on the first military use of balloons in the Civil War, which provided observers with an elevated view of the battlefield, according to Rick Zitarosa, a historian with the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society in Lakehurst, N.J.
The LEMV isn’t really a blimp. Technically, it’s called a hybrid airship, which gains lift from three different sources. One is the same aerostatic lift that a blimp gets from the same on-board helium. Another is aerodynamic lift, now that composite materials allow rigid, shaped hull designs that aren’t just balloons. The final element is vectored thrust from four diesel engines and vector vanes, which build an aerodynamic lift.
The value proposition as compared to satellite imagery, fighter aircraft, helicopters or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is that satellite time is extremely expensive and not continuously available. Fighters at an operating cost of $10,000 to $20,000 per hour, plus an additional $10,000 or so per flight hour in recapitalization costs, are not an affordable option. Helicopters are noisy, vulnerable, have low endurance and are not cheap to operate, either. UAVs have lower operating and recapitalization costs and can operate for 20 to 36 hours on station, but that is still limited, and their payloads are likewise limited by weight and aerodynamic restrictions.
Like a helicopter, LEMVs can operate from any small forward base. Their operating costs are near $20,000 for three weeks of continuous eyes on the ground at 20,000 feet, carrying 2,500 pounds of payload including communication relays, cameras and radar sensors.
The LEMV will be equipped with L-3 MX-15 and MX-20D WESCAMTM, miniaturized HD cameras with processing capability and laser designators that can see a signature on a letter from 20,000 feet altitude. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which kill and maim so many of our troops, may be a thing of the past. The LEMV will be able to have a 21-day unblinking stare to see the enemy’s attempts to plant IEDs and to track their movements. (See Figure 2.)
Figure 2: LEMV in action (courtesy of Northrop Grumman)
The LEMV will be deployed in Afghanistan in early 2012.
About the Author
Stephen Taranovich has 40 years of experience in the electronics industry. He received his MSEE from Polytechnic University, Brooklyn, N.Y., and his BEEE from New York University, Bronx, NY. Steve is also chairman of the Educational Activities Committee for IEEE Long Island.
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