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The Air Force has placed a stop-work order on a 370-foot-long blimp that was designed to be an optionally manned surveillance airship, and a senior service official said the program is likely to be canceled.
The Air Force's 2013 budget request does not include any money for Blue Devil 2, said spokeswoman Jennifer Cassidy.
"However, the Air Force remains committed to developing a long-duration [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capability that balances capability and affordability," Cassidy said in an email.
Because of budget and technical challenges, the service has issued a 90-day stop-work order on sensor payload integration of Blue Devil 2, which will allow the Air Force "to determine the most prudent course of action," Cassidy said.
The service is expected to finish building and testing the 1.4-million-cubic-foot Blue Devil 2, produced by Mav6, but it won't equip the aircraft with its crucial mission systems, the senior Air Force official said.
"The likely outcome is a descope of the program to complete construction, test and deliver the airship, only without sensors," said the official, who asked not to be named. "Due to current budget constraints, further efforts to outfit the airship with sensors, data links and a ground station and deploy it for ops are unlikely."
The official cautioned that the fate of the Blue Devil is still "predecisional," but the Air Force is coordinating with the Office of the Secretary of Defense on the aircraft's ultimate disposition.
Barring objections from higher offices within the Pentagon or additional funding from another agency, the airship is likely to be placed in storage.
The Blue Devil 2 was considered to be a herald of next-generation persistent intelligence collection with a potential endurance of more than nine days. Depending on the duration of the mission, the airship would have been able to carry 2,500 pounds of surveillance equipment for five days, or 7,500 pounds if the sortie was shortened to three days. Its payload system was designed to be reconfigurable in less than four hours, according to documents from Mav6, based in Vicksburg, Miss.
Mav6 CEO David Deptula, the Air Force's former intelligence head, expressed disappointment.
"Blue Devil 2 is the kind of innovative capability that the Department of Defense needs to be embracing for the new fiscal environment — cost-effective [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] greater than on any current DoD ISR system," he said. "A decision not to capitalize on this game-changing potential now may be penny-wise, but pound-foolish."
While the Air Force move doesn't come as a surprise, Mav6 business development vice president David Bither said he was puzzled by the decision. "We obviously respect the decision," Bither said. "But it's a bit confusing for us."
Bither said the fiscal 2012 budget allocated about $60 million in war funding to the program, specifically to address urgent operational needs in Afghanistan.
"In fact, we've been contacted by [U.S. Central Command] to actually tell that the requirement is still needed," he said. Additionally, buying the airship without the mission systems makes little sense.
"You're hearing one thing from the war fighter, and then another from the service that's sponsoring the work," Bither said. "That's confusing."
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