U.S. military pulls the plug on spy blimp project after spending over $140 million

By End the Lie

The enormous Blue Devil airship being stored in its North Carolina hangar (Image credit: Mav 6)

The military has called off their “Blue Devil Block 2” program after spending more than $140 million of taxpayer money, meaning even more wasted money like the airborne laser program I recently reported on.

The project was a massive spy blimp which would be deployed over Afghanistan and was set to take its first flight in less than six weeks.

“Blue Devil Block 2” is 370 feet long and ironically just days ago a high-ranking Air Force official was boasting of the predecessor project (“Blue Devil Block 1”) and how successful it was.

Last year the behemoth blimp was being billed as the future of aerial surveillance since it could be outfitted with multiple cameras and listening equipment allowing for surveillance of massive areas at once.

Indeed, it was said that this craft would be capable of spying on a whole village for days on end and with the ability to be loaded up with processors, the data collected could be processed before it was even sent out to intelligence analysts.

The project was plagued by schedule problems, technical complications and bloated costs, and the Blue Devil Block project is not alone.

In addition to this program, the Navy has decided to ground their MZ-3A blimp project and the Army was supposed to have a “Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle” airship already in the air over Afghanistan, which obviously is not a reality.

The Army’s project has also run into problems with development, leading to the obvious conclusion that surveillance blimps might not be the future of airborne surveillance as they claimed they would.

Despite the problems riddling all of these projects, the military doesn’t seem to be willing to can the idea altogether.

In testimony before a Congressional panel this week, the Air Force’s deputy assistant secretary for science and technology, Steven Walker, said, “Warfighter feedback on the situational awareness provided by Blue Devil Block 1 has been overwhelmingly positive.”

“Since December 2010, Blue Devil ISR [standing for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] has been instrumental in identifying a number of high value individuals and improvised explosive device emplacements,” Walker added.

Yet Walker did not address the fact that their Blue Devil Block 2 program was such a massive failure from the start.

Construction was delayed when the blimp’s tail fins became too heavy and Rockwell Collins, a subcontractor, “realized that the avionics of an airship were more complex than they had originally thought,” according to Noah Schachtman of Danger Room.

The blimp was originally going to have the Argus network of surveillance cameras which is capable of observing a massive 64 square kilometers at once.

When that couldn’t be properly integrated with the rest of the sensor, they had to downgrade to the Angel Fire pack which is capable of viewing a relatively small (but still massive) four square kilometers.

The laser which was going to beam the massive amount of data collected by the airship was scrapped because it couldn’t be custom built on schedule.

Then appeared the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) which further held up the project by demanding that they be able to certify the blimp since it had the ability to be manned.

On the other hand, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) better known as drones, have never had to go through such a certification process.

The FAA said that in addition to the option to man the blimp, it was also going to be flying over the United States, leading to another reason for it to be certified.

While they claim that this was only going to be flown over the United States for tests, considering the recently passed drone legislation, it could easily be deployed operationally in America.

Another problem was the primary contractor for the project, Mav 6, which is relatively small compared to the industry giants like Boeing, Raytheon, Northrup Grumman and so forth.

Even though the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Mav 6 is the former Air Force intelligence chief, “They were over their heads,” according to a senior official at the Pentagon.

The schedule for the deployment of the spy blimp was also plagued with problems. While they had originally scheduled the first flight for October 15, 2011, it was constantly being pushed back all the way to April 15, 2012.

However, the most troublesome aspect of the entire problematic project was the price.

A Mav 6 executive, retired Lieutenant General David Deptula (who, incidentally, served as the head of Air Force intelligence until 2010), claimed that the Blue Devil project would be cheap to both operate and maintain.

This claim conflicted with the estimate from the Air Force special intelligence program office “Big Safari” which differed greatly due to the massive processing power on board and the long time spent airborne.

Their estimate found that it would cost a shocking $188 million to operate due to the questionable durability and vulnerability to attack.

In their defense, this wasn’t really a surprise from Big Safari given that they had always been skeptical of the project and had not been quick to move towards drones over manned aircraft.

Danger Room reports that the project was essentially forced upon the Air Force in 2010 by a task force answering only to the Secretary of Defense himself.

When Big Safari got their hands on Blue Devil Block they proposed some dramatic changes to the program.

A report from the Senate Armed Services Committee last year stated that Big Safari “promptly proposed wholesale changes to the program – an entirely different platform, continued use of legacy [c]ameras, and different SIGINT [signals intelligence] sensors.”

While the Air Force has yet to make a formal decision on moving forward with the blimp, it is quite clear that they will not be proceeding with the project.

This can be surmised from the Air Force’s budget which has no funds set aside for the development or operation of the costly project.

Another hint came from Jennifer Cassidy, an Air Force spokesperson, in an email statement in which she said that “as a result of budget and technical challenges, the Air Force authorized a 90-day temporary work stop on the sensor payload integration.”

Seeing as this is the entire network of cameras and eavesdropping equipment which makes the blimp a spy blimp and not just an extremely expensive blimp like any other, this is a major move.

They have postponed the integration until the Air Force “determine[s] the most prudent course of action,” until then the costly endeavor will remain in a hanger somewhere.

Based on these statements and the fate of previous spy blimp projects, I seriously doubt that this will be moving forward, especially since the military has already developed a drone which can monitor massive swaths of land with their so-called “panopticon drone” which I reported on previously.

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One Response to U.S. military pulls the plug on spy blimp project after spending over $140 million

  1. Todd March 3, 2012 at 4:23 AM

    Seeing the picture, then reading the fiasco spelled out in the article brings to mind: “a monkey f^cking a football”

    Reply

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