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LEMV Airship Program Readies for Launch

When the Pentagon submitted a $3.6 billion omnibus reprogramming request to Congress last month it included some $5 million to kick start an ambitious surveillance airship program called the Long Endurance Multi-INT Vehicle (LEMV). 

In the LEMV, the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC/ARSTRAT), working with Air Force and Navy officials, plans to tap industry to bring U.S. forces in Afghanistan a greatly enhanced Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) capability.   

While Congressional Defense Authorizers and Appropriators have so far signed off on the $90 million Fiscal Year 2010 (FY10) LEMV budget request to launch the program, Mike Lee, SMDC’s lead for the nascent program, tells DSJ that the $5 million FY09 reprogramming, if approved, would allow the program office “to stand up the program office and set up the industry agreement process” in advance of the planned FY10 program start. 

Acquisition Strategy 

Regardless of exactly when the first funding arrives for the LEMV initiative, Mr. Lee envisions launching an aggressive effort by the end of 2009 that will, within 18 months, provide operational forces with a persistent platform of up to two weeks on-station time, with an integrated multi-INT [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] sensor suite.   

Specifically, as outlined in the May 2009 LEMV request for information, SMDC seeks to tap industry ability to engineer, design, develop, construct, integrate, test, operate and maintain an unmanned, un-tethered, hybrid airship with a contractor-supplied, Government approved payload, or a Government-supplied payload. 

The system must be able to carry a payload greater than 2,500 pounds, travel at 30 knots, have a range of 25,000 miles and be able to operate at 20,000 feet in altitude. 

Mr. Lee anticipates awards in FY10 for industry to, according to the program plan, undertake concept development and engineering trade studies; subsystem risk reduction, testing and validation; and design development and subsystem integration.  

As for an acquisition strategy, Mr. Lee notes that while he would prefer to have multiple awards, the determination on whether there are one, two, or perhaps more contractors engaged on the effort will depend on the cost associated with the proposals versus the available funding.   

Based on the speed in which SMDC hopes to bring the LEMV system to the field and the program’s desire to tap participation of non-traditional suppliers, the program office hopes to use “Section 845” or “Other Transaction Authority” – an expedited contracting mechanism often used by DARPA -- for this rapid prototyping initiative.  

“Industry up to the task” 

As to potential industrial participation, Mr. Lee notes that response to the May Sources Sought was robust, with inputs for LEMV systems and subsystems coming from more than twenty companies, including non-traditional suppliers, small businesses and international concerns.  (While Mr. Lee won’t get specific, Lockheed Martin Corporation and the U.K. company Hybrid Air Vehicles are among the prime contractors rumored to have posited concepts.) 

Mr. Lee underscores that the program is decidedly open to these non-traditional and international sources.  “We have no [domestic] preference, this is a full and open competition.”  Platform developers, he adds, need not even hold DoD facility clearances to participate. 

While cautioning that he won’t know for certain until he sees “full up proposals, including cost and schedule commitments” Mr. Lee observes that, based on his preliminary technical evaluation of the industry information he has in hand, he is optimistic that the LEMV program can be executed as planned.   Says Mr. Lee: “We think that industry is up to the task.” With the technical know-how seemingly in place to enable LEMV fielding, Lee points to “schedule risk” as being perhaps the greatest challenge facing the nascent development moving forward.   

We’ll know soon enough.


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