July 27, 2004

Seven Questions with Major Robert Blackington, USAF

El Jefe Grande submits another in his infrequent but interesting dispatches, this time from somewhere in southeastern Colorado.

Recently I had the pleasure of lunch and a brief interview with Major Robert Blackington of the United States Air Force Space Warfare Center’s Space Battlelab. Major Blackington (who came to my attention by name via an article on MSNBC.com titled: “Airship groomed for flight to edge of space” – 21 May, 2004 by Alan Boyle) is the Battlelab’s program manager for its Near Space Maneuvering Vehicle (NSMV) initiative This initiative is aimed at examining the possible use of lighter-than-air craft (aerostats or airships, commonly known as blimps, dirigibles, and zeppelins), at altitudes above those commonly used by conventional (aerodynamic) aircraft, to answer some of the needs of air, sea, and ground commanders for what is termed “responsive spacelift” or the ability to place payloads, particularly sensors, in locations of advantage, beyond an opponent’s reach and / or having a superior field of view. Practically speaking, the Battlelab is working with John Powell and his associates at JP Aerospace on demonstrating that their “Ascender” ‘v-airship’ can “reach an altitude of 120,000 ft. with a 100 lb. payload, navigate 200 NM, loiter for 5 days, and safely return.”

Holder of a Master’s Degree in Economics from Rutgers University, Major Blackington’s 19-year Air Force career has covered each of the primary missions the service has tackled over time, from “steel-on-target” air-to-ground operations in the AC-130 gunship, to Special Operations transportation, aerial refueling, and logistics in the MC-130 “Combat Talon”, to Information Operations (which, the good Major has taught me, is a collective discipline encompassing such concepts as; computer network attack and defense [CAN/CND, what might be referred to in less serious circles as ‘cyberwarfare’] electronic warfare, psychological operations, military deception, operations security, physical attack, public affairs, and civil affairs.) [1] , to his current work developing space (and “near-space”) hardware and doctrine.

Given his breadth of experience and his current assignment, I found it unsurprising that he is, overall, optimistic about the future as you may see in his responses to the Speculist’s traditional Seven Questions:

The present is the future relative to the past. What’s the best thing about living in the future?

“Watching science catch up to science fiction. Portable computers, Star Trek communicators, all that stuff has actually happened and there’s more on the way.”

What’s the biggest disappointment?

"When I was flying C-130’s, the back of one of our squadron challenge coins (Illustration [Click on the 16SOS link under "Squadrons"]) was inscribed: “Only the dead have seen the end of war. Unfortunately, I think that that is still true.”

Assuming you die at the age of 100, what will be the biggest difference between the world you were born into and the world you leave?

“In fifty-some years? It’s possible that nanotechnology might make the reasons behind that inscription; poverty, jealousy, etc. obsolete.”

What future development that you consider likely (or inevitable) do you look forward to with the most anticipation?

“After having a chance to work on the “Ascender” project, I really think that there is a good chance that airships may undergo a renaissance in the near future. Under certain circumstances they could do some of the same jobs as rockets and satellites, less expensively and more responsively.”

What future development that you consider likely (or inevitable) do you dread the most?

“A downside of science fiction becoming reality is that more powerful weapons of mass destruction are becoming more available to small groups and individuals. I don’t know what we have to do to deal with that possibility.”

Assuming you have the ability to determine (or at least influence) the future, what future development that you consider unlikely (or are uncertain about) would you most like to help bring about?

“Without a certain amount of ‘push’ from people who know something about their capabilities the Airship Renaissance I mentioned might not come about. I’d like to be part of that ‘push’.”

“Part of that ‘push’ is investigating the ways in which a technology can contribute to accomplishing our missions. Those contributions and the procedures to apply them, become the foundation of the ‘doctrine’ surrounding the new technology.”

“As you enter the Battlelab, there is an inscription on the wall that points out the importance of developing doctrine instead of just randomly grabbing at technologies.” (I’ve reproduced the quotation that the Major refers to, and a bit of the context below. – Auth.)

“National safety would be endangered by an Air Force whose doctrines and techniques are tied solely on the equipment and process of the moment. Present equipment is but a stop in progress, and . . .


[A]ny Air Force which does not keep its doctrine ahead of its equipment, and its vision far into the future, can only delude the nation into a false sense of security.”


– General H. H. “Hap” Arnold, 1945 [2]

“A good example from our work with the ‘Ascender’ is the development of the concept of “Near Space.” When we were evaluating the unique capabilities that ‘Ascender’, ‘Dark Sky Station’ and similar technologies brought to the table, we established that there was a regime, lower and slower than the lowest sustainable orbit (about 100 kilometers and 17,000 mph – Auth.) but above controlled airspaces (about 60,000 feet, 18.288 km – Auth.) where a geographically stable, persistent platform carrying sensors, communications or other payloads might be desirable and that ultra-high altitude airships and derivative technologies would give us the ability to exploit that regime in unique ways and / or less expensively and more responsively than competing technologies.”

Why is it that in the year 2004 I still don’t have a flying car? When do you think I’ll be able to get one?

“A flying car is not yet economically viable. There are too many costs associated with the technology; development, establishing safety and operation regulations and controlling risks. If those costs can be overcome, then it might be possible if there is enough demand.”

[1]  [See for example the Major’s Air Command and Staff College thesis:  Air Force Information Operations (IO) Doctrine: Consistent with Joint IO Doctrine? (Abstract)]


[2] As quoted in AIR FORCE DOCTRINE PROBLEMS by Dr. James A. Mowbray at page 4, citing Robert Frank Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force, vol. 1, 1907-1960 (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, 1989), 180.


Posted by Michael S. Sargent at July 27, 2004 09:49 PM | TrackBack

Thanks to Major Blackington for taking the time to talk to us, and thanks to you, El Jefe, for working us into your busy schedule. I think that many of us share the Major's enthusiasm for being part of "the push" to see these technologies realized, whether in the military or civilian sector.

Posted by: Phil at July 30, 2004 08:35 AM
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