Army Pulls Plug on Airship Project


JOINT BASE McGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. -- More than $350 million later, a 300-foot hybrid airship that was tested at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst has been scuttled by the U.S. Army, a casualty of plans to wind down American forces in the conflict, and the military's mounting budget difficulties.

Now, its British builders want to buy back the airship, which was designed for omniscient battlefield surveillance over Afghanistan.

The Long-Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, or LEMV, has been parked in Hangar 6 on the Lakehurst side of the base since its 90-minute maiden flight last August, its first and only time in New Jersey skies. But with the project far behind schedule, as program engineers worked to master computer software and control issues, and the Army facing difficult budget choices, military spending cuts ultimately claimed the airship.

Civilian airship enthusiasts had high hopes for the Army project, which if it had gone forward could have marked the first time a military airship flew over an active combat theater since Navy blimps from Lakehurst conducted anti-submarine patrols during World War II.

But those observers also sensed the project's costs and its developmental issues could work against it.

"It was the cost of the first test flight platform, and the war in Afghanistan winding down," said Rick Zitarosa, historian for the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society.

But delays and overruns had the program in trouble by late last year. In a March 12 speech to defense industry executives meeting in Washington, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called out the LEMV project by name, as an example of projects that senior Department of Defense management and industry contractors should have seen would fail.

"As it turned out, program delays prohibited LEMV from ever leaving New Jersey. So, just last month, it was killed -- after the Department sunk $356 million into it," McCain said, citing what he called a "culture of inefficiency" in the department.

Planned costs for the LEMV program were $279 million through fiscal year 2012, and would have gone to $517 million if fully adopted by the Army. According to the original plan, it would have been been the first of several extreme-endurance surveillance platforms, capable of operating at high altitude beyond the range of most ground weapons for days on end.

The airship has capability to carry people and cargo, but its major mission was the intelligence role -- providing an "unblinking eye" over the battlefield, as HAV and Northrop Grumman's promotional literature described it. The idea was to keep sensor arrays aloft to cover a huge extent of terrain, providing information to commanders on the ground in real time without the delays and gaps of conventional aircraft needing to leave the scene to refuel.

In an October report on Department of Defense airship research, the Government Accountability Office found $1.3 billion in spending across the services during the previous fiscal year, and persistent "technical challenges" to the projects.

For the LEMV, problems with producing fabric for the skin, getting foreign-built parts through customs and software integration and testing were factors in the program falling 10 months behind schedule, the GAO report said.

"Also, LEMV is about 12,000 pounds overweight because components, such as tail fins, exceed weight thresholds," the report noted. "According to program officials, the increased weight reduces the airship's estimated on-station endurance at an altitude of 20,000 feet from the required 21 days, to 4 to 5 days."

Revised plans called for an operating altitude of 16,000 feet, which would restore endurance to 16 days, the report said. But by the last months of 2012, the Army was looking at a $21.3 million shortfall because of the additional engineering and production work.

Unlike a traditional blimp, the LEMV is a combination of lighter-than-air craft and lifting body; the aerodynamic shape of its envelope provides for 40 percent of the ship's lifting power, according to company literature.

That older airship technology is surviving at Lakehurst.

The Navy's MZ-3A airship, a modified 178-foot long commercial design from the American Blimp Corp., is based at the Joint Base for several months a year. Since its formal acceptance by the Navy in October 2011, it has provided a relatively inexpensive flying test platform for military equipment.

The MZ-3A program was in danger of a shutdown in spring 2012 when a key research contract ran out, but since then Navy operators have picked up additional clients including Army research groups.

The LEMV may have a second life as well.

The BBC reported that contractor Hybrid Air Vehicles Ltd., the British company that built the ship in partnership with U.S. contractor Northrop Grumman, is seeking to buy the LEMV prototype back from the Army. HAV wants to continue testing the ship for other potential customers, Hardy Giesler the company's business development director, told the British news service.

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