Senators demand giant blimp. (No, really.)

Wired’s Danger Room takes a long look at the Blue Devil project – a 370-foot-long airship that, if some legislators have their way, will be flying over Afghanistan soon:

At 370 feet long and 1.4 million cubic feet fat, it is one of the largest blimps built in this country since World War II. All that size allows it to stay in the air for days at a time at 20,000 feet. And it enables the airship to carry an enormous array of cameras and eavesdropping gear — enough to keep tabs on at least four square kilometers at a time. No other singular eye in the sky could track insurgents for so far around.

No wonder then-Defense Secretary Bob Gates noted in a Nov. 17, 2010 memo (.pdf), obtained by Danger Room, that “the Blue Devil Air Ship initiative [is] urgently needed to eliminate combat capability deficiencies that have resulted in combat fatalities.”

A $211 million crash program was begun almost immediately, with the goal of sending the Blue Devil to Afghanistan before the end of 2011. The contract to lead the development was given to Mav6, a tiny but influential shop drawn from veterans of the Blackwater mercenary firm. David Deptula, the general in charge of Air Force intelligence was so excited about the project, he became the company’s CEO right after his retirement from the military.

And then there’s the question of what to do with the other giant blimp that’s supposed to be sent to Afghanistan. It’s called the Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, or LEMV. It’s being built for the Army by the defense stalwart Northrop Grumman, unlike the upstarts behind the Blue Devil. And the LEMV has the vocal support of the Army, unlike the Air Force’s oh-so-reluctant approach to its massive airship.

The word in defense circles is that the LEMV has had just as many technical setbacks as the Blue Devil. And while the LEMV has its own flight test scheduled for this month, it’s still an open question whether the Army giant airships will ever reach Afghanistan, either.