The past decade has seen an unlikely revival of a long-grounded technology. Military airships, last operational with the U.S. Navy in the 1960s, took back to the skies, propelled by soaring demand for long-endurance, low-cost aerial surveillance in Iraq and Afghanistan. Per flight hour, an airship costs a fraction of what a helicopter or a fixed-wing plane costs.

But three of the most prominent new-breed airship programs came crashing back to earth in early 2012. A massive, in-development Air Force spy blimp, a Navy test blimp and an Army tethered airship that’s part of an evolving missile-defense network — all were canceled or curtailed. It might have seemed that the promise of a new generation of military blimps was, well, so much hot air.

But the recent cutbacks mask an opposite trend. For every airship program that was canceled or curtailed, another sprang into existence or expanded. Arguably more importantly, the private sector is primed to begin using airships on a commercial scale, potentially laying the foundation for expanded military use in the near future.

They might have had a few holes poked in them, but military airships are far from deflated. Here’s a program-by-program review.

Blue Devil 2
Mav6, based in Alexandria, Virginia, was one of America’s newest defense contractors when, last spring, it scored an $86-million Air Force contract to develop its Blue Devil 2 unmanned airship. (Full disclosure: Mav6 CEO David Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, is a member of Breaking Defense‘s board of contributors.) Fitted with sensors and data-links, the modified TCOM M1400 airship — 370 feet long, with a top speed of 100 miles per hour and a volume of 1.4 million cubic feet — was meant to be an all-seeing eye for low-intensity battlefields. “The lighter-than-air M1400 airship is the perfect platform for persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions in Afghanistan,” the company tells AOL Defense.

Hovering at 20,000 feet for up to a week, the helium-filled Blue Devil Two would combine the capabilities of several of today’s drone aircraft in one inexpensive, ultra-long-endurance vehicle. The baseline sensor suite would include: full-motion video, a moving-target indicator radar and passive signals-intelligence receivers. Among the data-links planned for integration were the Tactical Targeting Network Technology waveform for connecting to aircraft and the Receive-Only Video Enhanced Receiver, or ROVER, waveform for transmitting video to ground forces. The airship was to be controlled via UHF satellite radio by two operators on the ground.

The goal at the time of the contract was for Mav6 to complete the airship’s integration in time for a 2012 combat demonstration in Afghanistan. But last month the Air Force scaled down the program. “The Blue Devil 2 program has experienced development and funding challenges,” Air Force spokesperson Jennifer Cassidy tells Breaking Defense. “The Air Force de-scoped the Blue Devil 2 program to deliver only the airship, without sensors,” she adds. “The airship will not be deployed to Afghanistan.”

Mav6 admits it faces “challenges regarding integration and schedule.” “However, you have to keep in mind that Blue Devil 2 is an R&D program,” the company tells Breaking Defense. “Airships similar to the M1400 have not been in use for over 50 years, and the challenges we’ve encountered are typical of those one would expect for a project of this size and scope.”

While the company will deliver the airship to the Air Force without the sensors and data-links that are integral to its surveillance role, Mav6 is optimistic that it will get the chance to add these systems later on. The company says it is “working very closely with the USAF and DoD to keep the program moving forward.” At the time of writing, the Blue Devil 2 was still under construction at a facility in North Carolina.

MZ-3A
American Blimp Corporation, founded in 1987, builds most of the airships in commercial service in the U.S. today, including many of the “lightships” that can be seen bearing advertising over sporting events. In 2005 the Navy acquired an American Blimp Model A-170, 178 feet long with a volume of 170,000 cubic feet and a top speed of just over 40 miles per hour. Like many airships, the helium-filled A-170 performs best at low altitude — just a few thousand feet, at most.

Re-designated MZ-3A, the Navy’s blimp spent time with test squadrons in New Jersey and Maryland testing out various sensors. “Due to the size and/or aerodynamic limitations imposed by some of these systems, an airship provides a faster and more consistent development path than ordinarily possible in fixed- or rotary-wing aircraft,” Doug Abbotts, spokesman for Naval Air Systems Command, tells Breaking Defense. “The airship also expands the possibilities for developing large multi-dimensional apertures/arrays that aren’t physically achievable with any other airborne technology.”

In 2010 the airship also deployed to Alabama to assist in the cleanup following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. MZ-3 acquisition and operations between 2006 and 2012 cost the Navy $3.6 million, according to the Asbury Park Press newspaper in New Jersey.

But the Navy, having previously abandoned patrol blimps in the 1960s, was never comfortable with the MZ-3, which owing to its large size and slow speed cannot safely operate from the same airfields as airplanes and helicopters. The Navy gave the airship “mixed reviews,” says Jim Dexter, a civilian pilot contracted to fly the MZ-3 in 2007.

As part of its 2013 budget proposal, the Navy said it would ground the MZ-3. “It is being deflated,” Abbotts told the Asbury Park Press. “It’s not that we have a lack of funding. We have a lack of mission.”

The Navy may not need it, but the Army came to the MZ-3′s rescue. The service has several airship programs in advanced stages of development. It wanted the MZ-3 “as a flying lab for evaluation and optimization of prototype sensors and communications equipment,” Abbotts tells Breaking Defense. The Army paid for a year of flying and assumed control of the MZ-3. The airship is en route to the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland for its test program.

JLENS
In 1998 the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command contracted with Raytheon to develop a tethered, airship-based elevated sensor system to provide early warning for missile-defense systems. The multi-billion-dollar Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor system, or JLENS, was based on a 233-foot unmanned, helium-filled airship built by TCOM and capable of carrying a 7,000-pound radar to 10,000 feet.

In 2004 the Army adapted the JLENS concept for visual surveillance, swapping the 233-foot aerostat for a 50-foot model and trading the radar for day and night cameras and a laser rangefinder. Known as Rapid Aerostat Initial Deployment, or RAID, the static blimps soon became a signature of U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2009 the Army had deployed no fewer than 60 RAID blimps at a cost of around a million dollars apiece.

“RAID is all about what’s happening in your area, in real time,” said Peter Schoate, Raytheon’s RAID program manager in 2009. A Raytheon employee assigned to install the blimp system at Army outposts in eastern Afghanistan was more specific. “Using these towers, I can see a guy eight kilometers away and tell you what he is carrying,” the contractor said on condition of anonymity.

With the Iraq war over for the U.S. and the troops Afghanistan scheduled to come home by the end of 2014, RAID acquisitions have surely peaked. JLENS, too, has been curtailed. In its 2013 budget, the Pentagon proposed to end JLENS production at the four aerostats already purchased at a cost of just over $500 million apiece. Twenty-eight JLENS aerostats would be cut “due to concerns about program cost and operational mobility,” the Defense Department explained. The cuts will save an estimated $6 billion.

There has been a glimmer of good news for Army aerostats. Last year the Army began adding software-defined radios to some of its RAID aerostats, using them to “extend the network,” according to Army spokesman Paul Mehney. At a biannual Network Integration Exercise in New Mexico in July, the Army installed Ground Mobile Radios and Manpack radios in at least two aerostats. The airships helped expand radio coverage into the mountains and valleys where thousands of soldiers were testing out new communications gear.

In a November iteration of the exercise, the Army employed three radio-carrying aerostats. If the Army chooses to use radio-equipped aerostats operationally, it could help ensure a place for static airships in the force structure even after the end of the Afghanistan war.

LEMV
The Army began talking about an optionally-manned surveillance airship in late 2009. Space and Missile Defense Command issued a solicitation the following February for a Long-Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, or LEMV, capable of carrying 2,500 pounds to 20,000 feet at a top speed of around 80 miles per hour, with an endurance of three weeks.

Lockheed Martin proposed its 125-foot P-791 airship, which had its first flight four years earlier; Northrop Grumman offered up an un-flown 300-foot model. Both were hybrid blimps combining helium and aerodynamic lift, lending them greater stability over a range of payloads.

Northrop snagged the $517-million contract in June 2010, in part because it offered a superior ground station. The contract called for up to three airships to deploy for a combat demonstration within 18 months. Last year the Army pushed back the deployment to “early 2012.”

As of this writing, the first LEMV is still being assembled in New Jersey. Army spokesperson John Cummings declines to specify a date for the initial flight. “LEMV is a one-of-a-kind prototype technology demonstration and as such the first flight will occur when the vehicle is ready,” Cummings tells Breaking Defense.

Despite losing the LEMV contract, Lockheed continued developing the P-791 and, in March last year, Canadian firm Aviation Capital Enterprises inked a deal for a scaled-up version capable of hauling 20 tons of cargo, with delivery sometime this year. Two subsequent variants would carry 70 tons and 500 tons, respectively.

“We envision helicopter-like operations in remote areas where you have no access,” Bob Boyd, the Lockheed program manager, tells Breaking Defense. “Imagine trying to carry things out to mines or such locations. It’s also good for search and rescue.” The larger models are economical for “global commerce,” Boyd adds.

The hardest part of developing airships is convincing potential operators that they’re a good choice, Boyd says. “The biggest challenge without a doubt is getting the culture to change.” That can apply equally to commercial and government operators. Despite advantages in endurance and cost, airships have met with wavering enthusiasm.

Ironically, the airship that the military rejected could help build the case for wider user of lighter-than-air vehicles. “We’re creating an industry here,” Aviation Capital Enterprises founder Kirk Purdy told Flight. Boyd says the P-791 derivatives could ultimately find customers for surveillance missions, bringing the airship full circle.

David Axe, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is a freelance war correspondent and author. His most recent book is a graphic novel, War is Boring.