Heavy-Duty, Lightweight Homeland Security

K.B. Sherman, 2004

Earlier this year bad weather delayed the US Air Force in testing its Near Space Maneuvering Vehicle (NSMV), a new technology being added to homeland defense and other ISR and defense applications. The semi-autonomous, lighter-than-air unmanned aircraft that would operate in the top layers of the atmosphere for extended periods is seen as new way of providing communications-relay and surveillance duties, according to the Air Force. Testing and development is being handled by the Air Force’s Space Battlelab and the Space Warfare Center (Schriever Air Force Base, CO). In a missile-defense configuration, a UAV airship might carry ladar for detecting and tracking ballistic missile launches, or conventional radar to keep on top of cruise missiles or aircraft.

Operating in “near space” – altitudes between 18 and 23 miles – the NSMV would use a region beyond that of airplanes but below that of low Earth orbit satellites. From this height, each NSMV UAV would be in a favorable position from which to monitor and provide data regarding surface-to-surface and surface-to-air activities across a wide sweep of the Earth’s area. In theory, the NSMV will be a relatively low-cost supplement to manned and unmanned aircraft. The Air Force will be testing a 175-foot long, V-shaped, helium-lift airship called Ascender, manufactured by JP Aerospace (Sacramento, CA), under contract to Scitor Corporation (Sunnyvale, CA). A smaller, 93-foot model has already been successfully tested inside its hangar. For flight testing of the Ascender, the Air Force plans to fly it to 100,000ft, have it maneuver between two points using its autonomous GPS-based navigation system, loiter over the second point, and return to its base. While Ascender uses lightweight carbon-fiber propellers to generate thrust, it has in addition a unique system that transfers helium between its two chambers to provide additional maneuverability by shifting its center of gravity and adjusting trim.

COL Patrick Rhodes, Commander, Air Force Space Battlelab, said that the V-Airship demonstration is to be conducted at the Pecos County West Texas Spaceport in Ft. Stockton, TX. The next weather window will open in May, although no specific date has been yet been selected. While NSMV will operate above the weather, it still has to ascend and descend through the atmosphere, making it vulnerable during that time to storms and high winds. Rhodes noted that the V-Airship is intended to carry ISR, communications relay, and other mission loads for extended periods of time.

While NSMV is not directly related to the High Altitude Airship Project, Rhodes said that the two projects are complementary, and in addition, the Air Force is working with the other services to ensure that employment concepts, technical issues, and lessons learned are shared. The US Missile Defense Agency recently paid Lockheed Martin $ 40M for continued design work on the 500-foot-long HAA – a craft twenty five times larger than the Goodyear blimp -- each to carry a 4,000 pound payload of sensors and other mission equipment, and to operate in a geo-stationary position at an altitude of approximately 12 miles for up to a year at a time. At that altitude, its radius of sensor view will be more than 350 miles.

Powered by a combination of solar panels and fuel cells running its electrically driven propellers and surveillance gear, a fleet of 10-12 HAAs (plus backups) is envisioned. The number and stationing of the NSMV fleet has yet to be determined.

If NSMV’s May demonstration flight is successful, Phase II to build a vehicle that will ascend to over 100,000 feet with a 100-pound payload will be started. Pending funding, this Phase II ship could fly in late 2004 or early 2005.

The NavLog