The U.S. Air Force has a 370-foot-long surveillance airship sitting in a hangar in North Carolina right now, 95% complete. In two weeks, the blimp will be ready to fly, just in time for the USAF to scrap the entire program, dismantle the hardware, and pack it all into shipping containers for storage. Sigh.
Originally, the USAF wanted the Blue Devil 2 airship to fill the gap between spy satellites and spy aircraft as a medium duration surveillance system that would have the capability of keeping on station for several weeks at a time, persistently watching over a huge area from a high altitude. It's an important function, something that the Pentagon called "urgently needed" just two years ago. But the program has now officially been killed, just days before the blimp was ready to fly. What the heck happened?
The official word is that the Air Force didn't want to spend the estimated $188 million it would cost to test out the Blue Devil 2 for a year in Afghanistan. That's despite the fact that it would ultimately cost about a third as much to operate the blimp as it costs to operate fixed wing aircraft with similar capabilities. Efficiency is also why the Army will be deploying their own blimp to Afghanistan early next year: the LEMV.
It's pretty clear that blimps can fulfill a niche for the armed forces, offering capabilities such as heavy lifting and long-duration surveillance that just can't be duplicated with other assets. And this might be what eventually saves the Blue Devil 2: even though the Air Force is bailing at the last minute despite its investment of a quarter of a billion dollars, it's possible that the Navy might now step in and take over on the project based on the success it's had experimenting with much smaller blimp platforms.
If the Navy doesn't step up, though, Blue Devil 2 will be completely dismantled and prepared for storage. $350,000 worth of helium will be vented out into the atmosphere without ever having lifted anything more than a couple feet off of the ground. And we'll have taken one very large and very expensive step backwards in technology development.
Via Danger Room