Code name alert: Is Liberty Ship a new Big Safari?


The US Army has Constant Hawk. The US Marine Corps has Angel Fire. Somebody has something called Highlighter.

What the heck are they?

Constant Hawk, Angel Fire and Highlighter are the names of manned, light aircraft that have been invented since the Iraqi occupation began to fight against the scourge of improvised explosive devices.

Public details vary greatly for each of these semi-classified aircraft programs. Thanks to funding and turf wars, we know quite a bit about Constant Hawk (a modified Shorts C-23B Sherpa) and Angel Fire. [USA Today article is here. Great analysis by is here.]

The US Army Material Command was even generous enough to post a photo of Constant Hawk on their Flickr page.

All I know about Highlighter is that it was invented by the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), and it is an aircraft. (Dear Maj Gen Montgomery Meigs, Thank you for disclosing Highlighter’s existence in a commentary you wrote to “correct” a critical Marine Corps Times editorial on April 16, 2007.)

We may — finally — have a clue about how all of these ideas were invented.

It could be a project office embedded in the Office of the Secretary of Defense [OSD] called “Liberty Ship”.

Perhaps modelled on the US Air Force’s famed Big Safari project office in Dayton, Ohio, OSD may be using Liberty Ship to skirt around the traps and tripwires of the military’s acquisition system.

The code word Liberty Ship was first mentioned in a public forum earlier this week by General Norton Schwartz, OSD’s nominee to become the next USAF chief of staff.

Before his nomination hearing, the Senate armed services committee posed written questions to Schwartz, including one query about how he would address the shortfall of spy aircraft in Iraq.

Schwartz replied in writing:

By increasing the number of MQ-9 vehicles, pursuing the “Liberty Ship” construct for acquisition of more “light” manned ISR aircraft, and accelerating the development of the Wide Area Airborne Surveillance sensor system, the Air Force is working very hard to get more ISR capability to the combatant commanders in support of on-going operations. If confirmed, this will have my personal attention from day one.”

For background, here’s an excerpt from the Senate armed services report published in May on the fiscal 2009 defense budget request.

“The Army Constant Hawk and Marine Corps Angel Fire systems are current examples of wide-area collection systems. The DOD leadership requested funds for the Air Force to acquire a combined, enhanced system, currently called Wide-Area Airborne Surveillance (WAAS), to image a larger area than Constant Hawk or Angel Fire, enable night operations, real-time support to ground forces, provide a forensic capability, and support many simultaneous targeting and surveillance missions. It could cue and hand off targets to [full motion video] platforms for prosecution.”

Liberty is not a common prefix for a code name. According to William Arkin’s Code Names reference book, there are only two other known Liberty prefix’s in the Pentagon’s classified lexicon:

  1. Liberty Shield, a Department of Homeland Security operation to increase security at the nation’s critical infrastructure
  2. Libertycap, a National Security Agency program to standardize all signals intelligence software

Clearly, these code names — Angel Fire, Highlighter, Constant Hawk, Liberty Ship — are the barest glimpse into the massive, multi-billion dollar and ambiguous effort to thwart the threat of IED attacks. I can’t wait to read the book someday.

[[PS: Don’t forget Hunter Green Dart!]]

Steve Trimble

  • ohwilleke

    Is this really a code name?
    There was a program in the Navy sometimes described as a Liberty ship, after previous similar programs, where a glorified cruise ship would wait offshore from bases in theaters either too dangerous, or too culturally conservative to permit women to wear stateside civilian clothes and to allow soldiers to drink alcohol. Ultimately, the deal was cancelled.
    From a procurement perspective, the notable thing was that this was a commercial off the shelf buy with as much as possible of the development of the deal handled in the private sector by assembling existing assets originally designed for other purchasers.
    Perhaps the “‘Liberty Ship’ construct for acquisition” is a reference to this business model, and refers to the notion of having a private military contractor buy Brazilian or other light recon aircraft off the shelf for final purchase or lease by the U.S. military for use in Iraq. Essentially, it would be another way of saying “no bid contract”.

  • ohwilleke

    This could also be a reference to the original WWII Liberty ship program. Per Wikipedia, this involved “cargo ships built in the United States during World War II. They were British in conception but adapted by the USA, cheap and quick to build, and came to symbolize U.S. wartime industrial output. Based on vessels ordered by Britain to replace ships torpedoed by German U-boats, they were purchased for the U.S. fleet and for lend-lease provision to Britain.”
    Perhaps the idea is to mass produce cheap, low tech aerial recon planes and lend-lease them to the Iraqi government.

  • pedestrian

    What? JSTARS Lite!?

  • Cocchi

    the MQ-9 is a predator drone on steroids, and can carry alot of deadly weapon systems. looks like we will start taking boots off the ground in place for an airborne security system , imagine insurgents knowing as soon as they fire off a round a hellfire missile is Always going to be a few minutes away. Iraqi security forces are going to need an ace up their sleeves to hold onto things after were gone.
    Look up the MQ-9 Reaper.

  • Snoofer

    Drones are used for target practice. The Predator is an armed surveillance machine.

  • Dr. Doug Haynes

    DARPA, BOEING and Virginia Tech please stop infringing / plagiarizing our disk technology.
    Dr. Haynes, DEHAS In and the world first Space airline

  • Dr. Doug Haynes

    DARPA, BOEING and Virginia Tech please stop infringing / plagiarizing our disk technology.
    Dr. Haynes, DEHAS In and the world first Space airline

  • bob

    It’s a King Air 350 with a pod on it. And it’s called Project Liberty. It was all over the news. Landed in Bagram 27 dec 09

  • jameet

    hey…. SHUT UP… loose lips sink ships assholes…

  • Avionit

    bob is right, it is a king air with a pod on the bottom in which a flir ball is mounted. they also are equipped with radios used to broadcast video data to a number of end users. I’m an avionics installer and have helped construct similar aircraft.