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With DSJ hearing bubbling of an emergent heavy lift blimp program within the U.S. Transportation Command, we put some questions directly to Air Force Maj. Chris Van Hoof, Future Airlift Programs section chief in the USTRANSCOM Strategy, Policy, Programs and Logistics Directorate (USTC J5/4).

DSJ: What is TRANSCOM doing, by itself, or with the Military Services, to explore/evaluate Lighter-Than-Air (LTA) approaches to heavy lift?

USTRANSCOM is working on risk reduction efforts in partnership with other DOD organizations (eg. SMDC, Naval Air System Command, U.S. European Command) to facilitate and support future DOD decisions regarding the potential new, cost effective applications of hybrid lift technologies for logistics.  USEUCOM and U.S. Africa Command have long been proponents of the use of hybrid  airlift. As the Distribution Process Owner, USTRANSCOM is championing EUCOM/AFRICOM needs in our quest. We also garnered DOD support for assessment  of future technology capabilities in our "Future Deployment & Distribution Assessment" (FDDA) which includes an assessment of hybrid lift capabilities and their possible impacts on 21st Century mobility/deployment and distribution operations.

USTRANSCOM is committed (along with Director of Defense Research & Engineering (DDR&E)) to seek new ways to achieve cost effective lift for DOD; hence, we are putting a modest investment toward several efforts (i.e., Concept of Operations (CONOPS), Modeling & Simulation, preliminary design, etc.) all designed to help facilitate the discussion and possibly a decision by DOD to pursue a theater lift capability (~20 tons).

DSJ: Would a notional TRANSCOM/SMDC Logistics Lift Technology effort go forward in coordination with the Army/SMDC Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) or would it be entirely separate?

The USTRANSCOM and SMDC Logistics Lift Technology effort is separate from the LEMV program.  LEMV is an established Army acquisition program. The Logistics Lift Technology effort will inform decision-makers of the possible logistics utility and cost-savings offered by hybrid airships.

DSJ: JCS Vice Chief General James Cartwright recently said that in the future ISR airships will be unmanned. Do you think that the same is true for the heavy lift mission? What are the mission and performance trades at hand?

USTRANSCOM is actively exploring the advantages that hybrid lift might offer in efficiencies in capability. Fiscal year 2011 efforts are designed to help provide the essential information to allow the DOD to weigh the potential cost advantages.  No decision has been made about manned vs. unmanned vehicles at this time.  Everything is on the table.

USTRANSCOM is exploring the possibility that hybrid aircraft may have the potential to operate faster than ships and cheaper than aircraft without requiring seaports or airports for support. They may offer the ability to deliver direct to the point of need without the necessity to make other stops or a requirement to transload their cargo to another mode of transportation.

Because the technology is reported to be scalable, hybrid airships might be able to operate across an entire spectrum of mobility missions. Small variants could deliver larger- than-helicopter loads from a main base or ship to forward operating bases. Medium variants could deliver C-130 sized loads to the front lines without the need to create some form of airfield. Large variants may be able to carry an entire unit and equipment directly from a home operating base to the battlefield non-stop and without the need for added infrastructure. Rigorous analysis will help quantify the possibilities.

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