The Pentagon awarded Lockheed Martin Corporation a $40 million contract to develop a high-flying, remote-controlled blimp that would monitor U.S. borders and scan the horizon for enemy missiles. The goal is to deploy an operational system by 2010. The contract includes a $50 million option to build one, while the plan calls for a prototype to be ready to fly in 2006. Three demonstrations of the airship are planned: in August 2004, November 2004 and April 2005.
The proposed three-year Defense Department Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration is worth between $50 million and $100 million. In April, the Missile Defense Agency awarded Lockheed Martin Naval Electronics and Surveillance Systems a $2 million contract to design an unmanned solar-powered helium-filled blimp. The Missile Defense Agency had also awarded similar contracts to Boeing and Aeros Aeronautical Systems Corporation (who are working with Northrop Grumman Corporation). One team was to be selected by June 2004 to build the prototype to be demonstrated by 2006.
In October 2002, the Missile Defense Agency, the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the Office of the Secretary of Defense put out requirements for an unmanned airship that could carry a payload of up to 4,000 pounds at an altitude of 70,000 feet for more than a month. It would also have four moveable propeller engines, but no rudders or fins. The prototype will be be 482 feet long, 180 feet tall and 153 feet in diameter, with a volume of 5.2 million cubic feet. This makes it about 25 times larger than those seen at sporting events, which are typically about 200 feet long and 70 feet in diameter.
These performance parameters would allow the airship to serve as a platform for cameras, radar and communications equipment, supplementing existing ground-based radar and satellites. At the blimps' proposed operational altitude, the sensors perfected for satellites would be up to 50 times more effective than they were in space.
Depending on who you ask, the airship concept has a wide selection of potential secondary uses. A November 2002 article described Pentagon officials as "cagey" about how the blimps would be used and how much they would cost.
The Missile Defense Agency thinks it's cameras could detect a rocket plume at takeoff (or a warhead in flight). The U.S. Army wants a communications relay and given the success of unmanned aircraft like the Predator, the airships could also be used to monitor combat zones overseas. North American Aerospace Defense Command figures blimps can be used for air defense. Remember the missing Boeing 727 stolen in Angola in May 2003, or the budget-rate "cruise missiles" that can be built at home? While initially unarmed, the airships could eventually be fitted with chemical lasers to shoot down incoming threats.
NORAD wants a fleet of ten airships would rim the U.S. coastline (starting from the Puget Sound and running down the Pacific coast, then up the Atlantic coast to Maine). Each airship would carry 40-foot rotating radars with a footprint of about 750 miles.
Several federal agencies have also expressed interest in the airships, including the White House Office of Homeland Security (which covers those borders not included in the NORAD plan). - Adam Geibel
Lockheed Martin "High Altitude Airship", online at: