Bedeviled by technology snags, the U.S. Air Force has finally stopped work on its contract with little-known MAV6 to build an intelligence-collecting airship for use in Afghanistan.
The service has notified prime contractor, MAV6 – an upstart company managed by two retired general officers – that it must cease work on the program owing to poor performance. The project was envisioned for quick deployment to Afghanistan in February, but 18 months after contract award, the company has yet to execute the first flight of the platform. And problems have been encountered in developing the massive tail fins for the airship and software for unmanned operation. Air Force frustration with the project's performance has not been a secret, and the service slowly eroded MAV6’s work scope as a result.
Blue Devil II was initially conceived as an airship capable of carrying 2,500 lb. of intelligence-collecting payload, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Autonomous Real-Time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System (Argus), a version of which is optimized for use in Afghanistan on the Predator unmanned aircraft. The Air Force also planned to put two separate Axsys video balls on the airship, capable of providing high-definition video feeds. The “Pennant Race” signals intelligence collector, an upgraded version of what now flies on the Reaper, was also eyed for Blue Devil II, according to Air Force sources.
Blue Devil II was one of several airship efforts that recently garnered interest – and money – from senior Pentagon officials hoping to improve intelligence-collection efforts in the permissive airspace over Afghanistan. The infatuation was largely due to the vision of parking an airship over an area to collect intelligence for a day or more with what officials thought would be little manpower and operational expense.
In reality, the airship vision – at least for Blue Devil II – has fizzled like a slow leak in a balloon.
Cost of the system has grown substantially. Originally estimated at $86 million, service officials last year said the price could double to execute the original contract.
In March, the Air Force rescoped MAV6’s work plan, taking the intelligence payload integration off the contract. An Air Force source also noted that the service backed off of plans to integrate software to unman the system in its original deployment owing to development issues. The goal simply became to prove the airship would fly, this source says, because it became evident that a fully integrated system would not materialize because of technical problems. “Since that time, the prime contractor has continued to struggle with technical problems to include flight control software, tailfin design and electrical system wiring,” according to an Air Force message sent to Capitol Hill. “Neither airship completion nor first flight is possible within the remaining contract period of performance which ends 30 June 2012.” The service requested no funding for Blue Devil II in the fiscal 2013 budget proposal.
Remaining funds will now be used to disassemble, pack and ship existing hardware, and the Air Force estimates that fewer than 100 employees will be affected by the decision.
Blue Devil II was the second phase of a two-phase effort. The original system, Blue Devil I, has been flying in Afghanistan and includes a wide-area camera and signals intelligence-collection capability, optimized to track individuals on the ground, mounted on a King Air 90. SAIC is the prime contractor.