Afghanistan: It’s a Gas, Gas, Gas

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Trouble on the blimp front: there apparently isn’t enough helium around to float the latest humongous lighter-than-air vehicles the U.S. military wants floating in the skies over Afghanistan to keep an eye out for bad guys.

The new Northrop Grumman unmanned Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle has “huge gaseous helium requirements,” the Pentagon says. So big, in fact, that it requires a no-bid contract to ensure the first of the LEMV’s can be inflated early next year and start floating toward Afghanistan to be there in time for the spring fighting season (this is beginning to sound like baseball).

“LEMV is longer than a football field, taller than a seven-story building and will remain airborne for more than three weeks at a time, delivering a high level of fuel efficiency,” a Northrop official says. “Fuel costs are minimal at $11,000 for a 21-day period of service. It’s very green.” Actually, it’s white. Price tag: $517 million for “up to” three of the craft — $172 million a pop. No more complaining about the cost of balloons at parades, please.

The helium fueling will take place at Lakehurst, N.J. Old-timers will recall that’s where the Hindenburg exploded in 1937, killing 35 (“Oh! The humanity!” radio reporter Herbert Morrison famously cried). Youngsters of a certain age know it better as the cover of Led Zeppelin’s first album. (h/t Danger Room)