The Air Force is not going to deploy Blue Devil Block 2, the spy blimp.
That’s right: a spy blimp. It was going to help win the war in Afghanistan. It has so many snafus that the war in Afghanistan will be over before this gasbag will fly.
Maybe it can fly. We don’t know. One thing is for sure: the project won’t fly.
Schedules slipped, as the airship’s tail fins came in overweight and subcontractor Rockwell Collins realized that the avionics of an airship were more complex than they had originally thought. The Argus network of spy cameras, which could oversee 64 square kilometers at once, couldn’t be integrated in with the rest of the sensor; the blimp-builders had to settle for an Angel Fire camera pack, which could only look at a mere four square kilometers at a time. Then a giant laser, meant to beam all that surveillance data to the ground, had to be put aside. It couldn’t be custom-built fast enough.
The blimp is longer than a football field. It was going to be loaded with spy gadgets. It was a spymaster’s dream. But the dream did not come true.
Now, that lighter-than-air future could be in jeopardy, thanks to a series of schedule delays, technical complications and, above all, inflated costs. But it’s not just Blue Devil that’s in trouble. The Navy just deflated its MZ-3A blimp. The Army’s Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle airship, which was supposed to be in Afghanistan by now, has run into significant development roadblocks as well. Blimps’ status as the Next Big Thing in high-flying spycraft is in jeopardy.
The blimp has hit another roadblock — or is it an air pocket? The Federal Aviation Administration got into the act. Because the blimp will have to be tested above the U.S., the FAA has claimed the right to supervise this.
The Air Force insists it hasn’t yet made a formal decision about the fate of the massive blimp. But the service’s budget for next year contains no money to develop or operate the blimp — a telling sign. What’s more, Air Force spokesperson Jennifer Cassidy acknowledged in an email that “as a result of budget and technical challenges, the Air Force authorized a 90-day temporary work stop on the sensor payload integration” — the blimp’s network of cameras and listening devices — until the service “determine(s) the most prudent course of action.” Till then, the Air Force’s plump, floating future remains tethered to the ground.
Over fifty years ago, Rev. Joe Bayly wrote a comic novel about a misguided evangelism project, The Gospel Blimp. It was turned into a movie. It seems that the Air Force did not read the book or see the movie. It should have.