A concept artist's sketch shows the LEMV in flight. The massive 250-ft airship, built by Lockheed Martin will be floating over Afghanistan, gathering intelligence in 2011. It can fly three weeks without stopping for fuel.  (Source: Gizmodo)

Lockheed Martin has already successfully tested a smaller, 125-ft hybrid airship, the P-791. The P-791, pictured here in flight, made six test flights in 2006.  (Source: YouTube)
Airships to play critical role in future warfare

In the early twentieth century, airships were a promising new front of warfare, with dirigibles serving both for bombing and for intelligence gathering.  However, the advent of airplanes and key disasters such as the Hindenburg fire spelled the death of the airship as a war weapon.  Airships still stuck around, though, in the form of the blimps that float over sporting events.  They also frequently appeared in fantasy and science fiction, where they served as key attack aircraft or command centers in such works as the Marvel comic book universe (the SHIELD helicarrier), Final Fantasy, Aeon Flux, and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

Now airships are poised to make a real life return to the battlefront.  Measuring 250 feet in length, Lockheed Martin's Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) is sure to make an imposing presence on the battlefield when it debuts in mid-2011.

The ship is capable of carrier passengers, or being remotely controlled by operators in the U.S.  The airship can sit at up to 20,000 feet for as long as three weeks at a time.  The LEMV is actually a special kind of airship called a hybrid airship.  Where most airships are lighter than air when flying, hybrid airships are heavier than air, though they do get some of their buoyancy from gas compartments.  The rest comes from lift during flight (like airplanes).  Some, like LEMV, feature turbines on their underside to help them initially launch into the air, though they still require a short runway.

The materials which compose the three lobes of the aircraft have not been released, so its hard to assess how resistant to enemy fire they will be.  Given, the craft's cruising height, though, it should be able to remain relatively safe.  The aircraft carries its instruments and sensors in a 40-foot long, 15-foot wide area behind the cockpit.  The sensor payload will be 2,500 pounds and draw 16 Kw of power.

The outlandish airship will see test deployment to the battlefield in Afghanistan two years from now.  It will be used primarily for intelligence.

Lockheed Martin is also developing separate airships to transport large amounts of cargo at lower altitudes.  The LEMV and Lockheed's other airships are largely based on the 125-foot P-791 hybrid airship, built and tested in 2006.  The P-791 showed itself capable of taking flight, carrying heavy loads, and executing sharp turns over six test flights.

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