The following article was contributed by long-time defense innovator Chuck Myers.
AIRSHIPS: WHY NOW?
A “sudden interest in airships” within the Department of Defense has prompted the question: why now?” The author, having been involved in sporadic exercises within the Navy, USAF and USCG dating back to 1983, offers his perspective of some key events and situations which are germane to: (1) why it “happened before but didn’t take” and (2) why more serious interest has re-emerged during our Nation’s Post 9/11 Time Frame. For this discussion, he lumps all forms of Lighter Than Air (LTA) together (near space balloons, high altitude airships, tethered aerostats, COTS blimps, hybrid aircraft/hybrid airships).
In the midst of a Navy lighter-than-air development effort, circa mid eighties, the USAF tasked its Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) to take a “fresh look” at the military utility of an airship platform as a key element for air defense of the CONUS. The introduction of the SAB 1987 report on AIRSHIPS begins with: “Some attractive and interesting systems concepts have been dropped from serious consideration for want of a suitable application or mission …”. Their observation referred to the fact that the last acquisition of a Navy airship system, early fifties, was focused on the USSR threat of long range, low flying bombers which might attack the US with nuclear weapons via the Northern route down across Canada. It was the same threat that served as the basis for constructing the DEW Line (Distant Early Warning Line), a network of 63 radars across Canada.
NORAD identified a possible weakness in the DEW Line in that the areas on both ends, out to sea, were not adequately covered. The Navy proposed to close the “gap” by stationing very large non-rigid manned radar surveillance airships in both the Eastern and Western coastal regions. The new air defense airships the Navy developed and flew in 1954 were the four ZPG-3Ws which contained low frequency radars having 48’ x 7’ rotating antennas suspended within the 1.5 million cuft envelope plus a height finding radar on its top. However, by the time these giant sized airships could have been deployed in sufficient numbers, the perceived threat changed from low flying aircraft to Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) thus erasing the basis for further investment in the Navy’s embryo surveillance airship program.
In 1986 the USAF Tactical Air Command (TAC) noted that the low altitude fixed wing threat to CONUS had re-emerged in the form of long range Soviet “stealthy” cruise missiles. TAC envisioned that the solution might be some combination of AWACS, manned Airships, Tethered Aerostats, SAMs and AWX Interceptors, ergo, the assignment to the SAB to evaluate the military utility of airships for low altitude air defense.
The SAB report concluded that: “1. Because the airship provides an accommodating platform for the type of radars likely to be employed to detect low-observable missiles and because airship acquisition and operating costs are attractive for long endurance missions, the airship appears to have a unique role in North American air surveillance and warning.”
The SAB went on to say that since the Navy is proposing to create a large manned airship for the purpose of force protection against the CM threat, the USAF is advised to join their effort and have an additional prototype airship produced for USAF experiments. A joint program was proposed and was about to be consummated when, following a Presidential election and change in leadership within the DoD followed closely by a three billion dollar Congressionally mandated budget cut, the program was scuttled by rapacious Navy factions which had “other” priorities. The potential for a “joint program” which could have prepared US forces to counter an emerging threat, evaporated. Since 1988, the projected threat in the form of stealthy cruise missiles has materialized and proliferated; the perpetual requirement to close the low altitude attack corridor over land and sea remains a serious challenge.
Avarice among various “weapon systems communities” (fighters vs. bombers, ships vs. submarines, armor vs. infantry, manned vs. unmanned, etc.) often derails efforts to implement readily available solutions. The saga of lost opportunities to exploit LTA technology is a classic example. It is painfully documented by VADM Charles Rosendahl, up through the time of his death in 1977, in the book “SNAFU” The Strange Story of the American Airship. His account, published after his demise, describes the entire spectrum of the struggle including the German experience following the 1937 Hindenburg disaster and Hitler’s reaction which abruptly terminated progress toward more affordable, comfortable global transportation.
What characteristics of LTA can account for its re-emergence?
2. Sustained Flight/Persistence
4. Electronic/Human Friendly Environment
5. Cargo Survivability (valuable systems and humans)
If your mission interest includes any of the following, you will eventually be induced to consider LTA:
1. Surveillance/Communications: Urban/Border/Port Security
2. Deliver Combat Ready Units to AOR (Fort to the Fight)
3. Directed Energy Weapon Employment
4. Post Disaster Response (Tsunami / Katrina)
5. Electronic Jamming (very large antenna/high power)
6. Providing an Airborne Base for UAV Operations
7. Airborne Base for Combat Aircraft (demonstrated in 1930)
8. Protection from Low Altitude Air Attack (barrage balloons)
9. ASW/Anti-mine Warfare Operations
10. Discover/destroy buried ordnance
11. Support for a Forward Sea Base (water or land)
12. CONUS Transport of Hazardous Materials
13. Hauling Ore from Remotely Located Mines
14. Access/Patrol/Exploitation of the Arctic Region
15. Alternative to Triple Decking Automobile Free Ways
16. Long Range Coastal Patrol (Baja to Bearing Sea)
17. Stealthy Intrusion for Special Operations
18. Sight Seeing/Aerial Photography
19. Aerial Advertising / Sporting Events Coverage
20. Xtra Luxurious Global Transportation (demonstrated)
Many of the mission capabilities mentioned above have been demonstrated to one degree or another at some time during the last century. What is different today which might compel exploitation of one of the many variations of “airship” technology? For one, the nature of the military conflicts and threats DoD/DHS have been tasked to address:
1. Surprise Enemy Intrusion/Attack across the entire expanse of our population and high value assets/resources both here and abroad.
2. Insurgency in forms for which Continuous Overhead Presence (heretofore deemed unaffordable) is a requisite counter action.
3. Ground operations in areas where the terrain (urban structures or mountains) seriously degrade communications among units.
Additionally, LTA systems of the last century, although proven useful, are now potentially more cost effective because of the confluence of advances in the technologies of:
- Envelope fabric which eliminates the need for hangars to perform sustained operations in remote areas
- Envelope life of 20+ years vs. 8 years as in the fifties
- Structural members can be lighter/stronger/less expensive
2. Control Systems: fly by light/remote actuators vs. cables, auto flight control and remote flight control for unmanned options)
3. Power Sources: Thrust Vectoring, Fuel Efficiency, T/W
4. Electronics: GPS nav, communications, global WX reporting, airborne surveillance, heating/cooling, MTBF for systems, systems volume/weight vs. fifties technology)
5. Computer Aided Design (airship design is a complex undertaking)
The market for commercial aerial advertising accounts for the availability of the remnants of the former military LTA industrial base which survived the neglect of the last half of the 20th century. Fortunately, this modest base is available to continue development of LTA technology beyond where it left off fifty years ago. The suggested menu for USG application/exploitation of LTA systems includes:
1. Immediately (6 months): Utilization (wet lease) of modified/expanded COTS platforms for existing problems such as (a) countering the IED threat and COIN in OIF (b) Border Patrol Operations (c) Urban and Port Security/Post Disaster Communications (d) Improving Security for CONUS Infrastructure/Critical Assets.
2. Intermediate (1-3 years): creation of Medium Altitude (20,000’) unmanned IRST/C2 systems and High Altitude/Near Space Communications platforms (pseudolites) both of which can magnify the virtual global presence of Navy surface warships (mix AIRships with SEAships) to yield AFFORDABLE maritime presence.
3. Long Term (3-6yrs): creation of extended range patrol airships for MDA and fleet defense, hybrid airships for global transportation and delivery of outsized heavy cargo to areas lacking sea and airports (From the Fort to the Fight).
Astute selection and mix/matching of LTA and HTA technologies can yield significant near term improvement in the cost/effectiveness of DoD/DHS air surveillance/communications, global transportation and security for the 21st Century.