The Walrus: the US Army contemplates building an aircraft the size of a football field

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September 6, 2005 Moving an elephant atom by atom costs a lot more than moving the elephant in one pre-assembled lump. And that is what the US Army’s Project Walrus is about – putting together an entire action unit of war machinery, with all the wiring and plumbing preinstalled, and placing it in the most strategic place. Whilst this would completely rewrite the way that war is conducted, the Walrus - a massive lozenge-shaped blimp the size of a football field capable of transporting 500 tons at a time - could offer solutions to myriad peacetime problems, opening land-locked countries to trade, enabling heavy construction materials to be delivered into urban centres with minimum disruption, freeing our highways of high volume, heavy loads, offering a more robust and agile air transportation network capable of absorbing disruptions due to weather or attack. Indeed, business logistics could again be completely rethought and streamlined because many physical transportation limits would no longer apply once a fleet of commercial walruses became available. The walrus does not require an airstrip and can land on water or on open ground.

The military offers society many innovations –unlimited budgets buy cubic brainpower to dissolve massive problems – this is the good that comes from such intensive endeavours as war. This is the positive to the negative known as collateral damage. Call it collateral betterment … spontaneous transformation of the way we do things. Before September 11, the US military budget was in the vicinity of US$500 billion, and it’s now a LOT more.

And with a few years of very high budget requirements under the American public’s belt, and no end in sight, everybody is looking for a better, more efficient, way of running its own “virtual nation” of soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Lots more money is required and the US Military is seeking the most effective and judicious uses of its budget. One of the biggest, most complex and most costly aspects of the wars in far off countries is logistics. America has 140,000 soldiers on the ground in Iraq and 10,000 in Afghanistan and needs to police around 171,599 square miles, (444,439 square kilometers) of Iraq and 251,825 square miles (652,225 square kilometers) of Afghanistan. Not only did it move that number of troops from American soil to the respective countries, it also needed to take its entire military-strength infrastructure with it.

The American Military is a travelling nation – it needs not just to transport the nation’s citizens (the soldiers), but hundreds of small towns and a few cities – almost exactly the same number as there are towns or cities in Iraq. Including the fabled Baghdad.

It must also supply its own air, water and ground transportation infrastructure, its own Mercedes class of customer service and spare parts network for the transportation, and its own town amenities (water, power, sewerage, food), and housing, security, administration … to a military, mess-it-up-and-people-will-die standard in the most hostile environment possible.

It also needs a military-strength hospital system capable of dealing with the casualties of war - there have been 2,077 coalition troop deaths in the war in Iraq as of September 2, 2005. At least 14,265 U.S. troops have been wounded in action – on average, there are 50 US deaths and 500 casualties a month.

The Walrus

One of the answers is a prototype "tri-phibian" (air, land, sea) zeppelin known as Project Walrus. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded funding to two contractors for the first phase of the Walrus program.

DARPA’s vision for the WALRUS Program is to demonstrate the feasibility of a heavy lift air vehicle concept to meet a strategic transport need. The program will not re-package 1930s technology or upscale the more limited commercial dirigibles of today, but rather will employ an LTA vehicle concept with new and emerging technologies. By leveraging these technologies to develop an air vehicle, DARPA hopes to truly introduce a paradigm change in capability for providing responsive and flexible deployment and force projection options to military commanders.

WALRUS will require little or no infrastructure to build or maintain, and will not be limited by the need to use runways or other infrastructure (masts, etc) at the landing location. The system will not require a hangar for storage while not in use, and will be able to withstand adverse weather conditions throughout operational life without significant tie down or other manpower intensive operations.

It is anticipated that Walrus will operate in areas where there is local air superiority and ground defenses are suppressed. Survivability will still be an issue that demands importance and will be shaped by the definitive needs resulting from the development of CONOPs.

The Military’s logical future tasks will require the capability of rapidly maneuvering to critical points across the earth and rough calculations show the walrus will be able to do this a minimum three times faster than by ship and be ready to operate immediately - and do so at lower cost than existing airlift. The current alternative is to find a nearby airport, and use a fleet of C-130 cargo planes, which can each carry about 22 tons, fly in the trucks necessary to move it, and truck it all to where it needs to be.

Not surprisingly, the Walrus won’t take on the zepellin-like cigar shape of the infamous and closely-related Hindenberg, the largest aircraft ever to fly, which burst into flames in one of the most public disasters ever to etch itself into the public consciousness in 1937.

Indeed, mentions of the Hindenberg in official documents and the ever-present paragraphs distancing the Walrus from previous generation airships and their outdated technologies are plentiful in the documentation that has been made available to the public so far.

DARPA’s Walrus program will develop and evaluate a very large airlift vehicle concept designed to control lift in all stages of air or ground operations including the ability to off-load payload without taking on-board ballast other than surrounding air. In distinct contrast to earlier generation airships, the Walrus aircraft will be a heavier-than-air vehicle and will generate lift through a combination of aerodynamics, thrust vectoring and gas buoyancy generation and management.

The two contractors receiving Walrus phase I awards are Lockheed Martin (US$2,989,779) and Aeros Aeronautical Systems Corp (US$3,267,000).

The Walrus program will develop an operational vehicle concept design and required breakthrough technologies and will conduct risk reduction demonstrations of these new technologies. Demonstrations will include flight tests of a Walrus Advanced Technology Demonstration (ATD) scaled aircraft.

A key goal of the Walrus program is to establish clear and credible solutions that provide confidence that earlier airship-era limitations will be overcome. In particular, an early focus of the program will be the investigation of advanced breakthrough technologies that will support the development of innovative lift and buoyancy concepts that do not rely on off-board ballast.

The Walrus operational vehicle (OV) is envisioned to have the primary operational task of deploying composite loads of personnel and equipment (for example, the components of an Army Unit of Action) ready to fight within six hours after disembarking the aircraft. Walrus will operate without significant infrastructure and from unimproved landing sites, including rough ground having nominal five-foot-high obstacles. It is intended to carry a payload of more than 500 tons 12,000 nautical miles in less than seven days at a competitive cost. Additionally, Walrus will be capable of performing theater lift and supporting sea-basing and persistence missions to meet a range of multi-Service needs.

During the program’s first phase, a 12-month analytical effort, the two contractor teams will conduct trade studies to determine which OV design concept most satisfies the operational tasks and optimizes design capability. Phase I will explore various vehicle configurations (rigid, non-rigid and semi-rigid), and will conclude with a concept design review of the OV and the supporting technology development plan for risk reduction demonstrations including the ATD vehicle.

DARPA will select one contractor team to enter the second phase, which will be a demonstration effort spanning three years. During phase II, the program will refine the OV design needs, identify the OV’s potential military utility through modeling and studies, develop breakthrough technologies, and conduct risk reduction demonstrations of components and subsystems, including flight demonstration of the ATD vehicle. The risk reduction demonstrations, including the ATD vehicle, will establish a low-risk technology path for proving the Walrus concept and achieving the operating goals.

Accordingly, the WALRUS will probably be shaped more like a flat, lifting body as depicted in the images from the accompanying DARPA briefing slides.

The up-side for society

One of the companies in the mix to get funding for development of the Walrus was Millenium Airship Inc – a company whose primary goal is to design, engineer, build, market, support and operate the world's first heavy-lift air vehicle that is: lighter-than-air , all-weather , amphibious, semi-rigid, multi-mission and hybrid. Millenium Airship missed out on the funding but articulated the benefits to society of such an airship very well.

Millennium Airship Inc.’s heavy-lift aircraft design concept is named SkyFreighter, and includes an innovative Integrated Thrust and Maneuvering Management System (ITAMMS) combined with ThrustWing technology which the company claims will deliver complete controllability including vertical (VTOL) capability. SkyFreighter would also be amphibious, opening possibilities for infrastructure-independent shipment of cargo worldwide. Such an aircraft would be manoeuvrable enough to operate virtually anywhere (land or sea) where there is enough space to accommodate its size. The operational objectives of the SkyFreighter are to build an airship that has full VTOL and cross-wind capability, while also being able to operate without the need for any ground based infrastructure or reception facilities at the point of delivery of its cargo....worldwide

Borrowing heavily from the words on the Millenium Airship site, the SkyFreighter would “create a paradigm shift in the aviation and trans-oceanic freight industry with the ability to transport any product almost anywhere on the globe safely and quickly and most importantly, at very low cost.”

“This will eliminate the need for manufacturers to design and build large industrial equipment in pieces small enough to be transported over roads, etc., thus further reducing costs to the equipment manufacturer and ultimately their customers.”

“The commercial sector of our economy also requires air vehicles, such as the SkyFreighter, to augment the already burdened sea and air cargo business. SkyFreighter is especially adapt to carrying fully assembled, outsized, and bulky cargo at speeds up to 100 mph and up to 6,000 miles unrefueled.

“The air vehicles will come in four sizes of lift capability: 50 ton, 150 ton, 300 ton and 500 ton. View Fact Sheet

“The SkyFreighter fits very nicely in a niche between sea going vessels, which are much slower and can carry more tonnage, and other aircraft, which are faster but limited in tonnage and size of cargo. It is anticipated the commercial prototype aircraft design will start in late summer 2005.”

Potential backers for such a project can contact Millenium Airship here.

The paradigm shift

The previously unavailable capabilities of the Walrus/SkyFreighter offer an opportunity to redefine how we transport people and infrastructure around the planet. Instead of building an object, breaking it into small pieces, transporting it by a combination of road, sea and air and then rebuilding it somewhere else, there is now the possibility that transport can be done in one lump, point-to-point, without sea and air port infrastructures.

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