Reviving interest in untethered lighter-than-air technology after a half-century hiatus, the US Army in January will kick-off a process to buy a long-endurance hybrid airship to deploy within 18 months to Afghanistan for surveillance missions.

Space and Missile Defense Command will issue a request for proposals for the long-endurance multi-intelligence vehicle (LEMV) contract on 29 January, the agency says.

An acquisition notice posted on 29 December describes the command's requirements for the airship. LEMV will be optionally manned, fly for up to three weeks, carry multiple intelligence payloads weighing up to 1,134kg (2,500lb), provide 16kW power and reach speeds up to 80kt (148km/h).

The army will test the airship's performance during the first 18 months, then deploy the airship into combat service in Afghanistan for the next 3.5 years, says the notice.

Lockheed Martin long-endurance multi-intelligence  
 ©Lockheed Martin

The LEMV programme has received interest at high levels of the Department of Defense and the US defence industry.

The National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) has formed a consortium to support the LEMV project. Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works division has demonstrated a prototype hybrid airship called the P791. Another company, Hybrid Air Vehicles, plans to adapt its Skycat hybrid airship for military use.

LEMV also figures prominently in the army's new strategy for a multi-layered fleet of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft. As a medium-altitude asset with ultra-long-endurance, the airship is expected to complement unmanned aerial vehicles and manned turboprops performing similar missions.

According to budget justification documents released in May, the army plans to spend up to $76 million on the LEMV acquisition process in Fiscal 2010.

Source: Flight International