Monday, November 12, 2012

Return of the airships?

The Royal Navy has not had any airship for a long, long time now, but not so long ago the national  press reported that Hybrid Air Vehicles which is under contract to build the Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle  surveillance airship for the US Army, had started talks with the Royal Navy.

At the time the report caused quite some surprise and excitement. Of course, i wasn't excluded. I reported about the possibilities rather extensively in the past, but i also reported about some of my doubts and issues with the concept.
In particular, i was puzzled by how such a massive airship would be sustained during long overhead surveillance operations far out at sea. With the limited information available at the time, i was worried that the airship probably would need a dedicate support vessel in order to be able to stay out at sea for a long time. Maintenance, refuelling, topping up of Helium, were all challenging aspects, considering that the Airlander 50 is more than 120 meters long, and perhaps 65 meters wide. You can't land it on a ship, not even on CVF. Yes, it lands on water, but when it is landed, what kind of maintenance does it need? What kind of impact the weather and rough seas will have on the ship once it lands in the water? Will it be possible to moor it alongside a RFA vessel, or another ship, and service it safely that way?

These were some of the questiones that immediately came up to me. 

Now, the Airlander 50's page on Hybrid Air Vehicles' website has been updated to include a few interesting details that partially answer mine (and, no doubt, the Royal Navy's) questions.

Hybrid claims that the Airlander 50: 

With proven low vulnerability and ability to land on water, the Airlander 50 can be maintained from on-board for an extensive period – up to several months. It is crewed and operated like a ship; crew are permanently embarked, and it is designed to accompany task forces as a unit in its own right. AIRLANDER 50 can take fuel from ships using helicopter in-flight refuelling (HIFR) facilities, load stores, food and change individual crew members if required. 

Its use with a maritime task force is something between a number of freight moving helicopters, RFA ships freight and people movement between forward mounting bases and the task group, then delivery around the task group, and even surveillance if required. With a capability to lift 20 tons vertically, AIRLANDER - 50 can be used to transfer exceptional loads between ships at sea. In assault operations, AIRLANDER can be used in support, releasing other assets, such as helicopters, to be deployed elsewhere.

This is a new information, and particularly relevant. The capability to deploy with a naval task group and stick to it, staying with the ships, is crucial to making the airship a truly useful ISTAR platform. If it was effectively demonstrated that the airship could deploy and stay out at sea with the fleet for at least 160 to 200 days, then the airship would truly be an alternative to helicopter-based CROWSNEST solutions. The airship would be a very good AEW and EO/IR surveillance platform in that case.

My doubts actually were not so much about fuel, but more about more complex and "exotic" things such as topping up of Helium, something the current warships do not do and are not kitted for, but Hybrid's claim reassures me that the problem is far from unsolvable. At least in theory.
The airship is described as having an endurance of 5 days at 16.000 feet if a human crew is on board, while it can stay in the air for a surveillance mission for up to 21 days at 20.000 feet, at an operating radium of 500 nautical miles if remotely piloted. 

With its ability to land on water, and take fuel aboard while hovering like an helicopter behind a warship, the Airlander 50 should thus be genuinely sustainable in the long term during a deployment far away from home out at sea.

In Carrier On-board Delivery (COD) role, the airship has a very interesting capability: it comes fitted with a very powerful crane that can vertically lift or lower a 20' container, loaded to a total weight of up to 20 tons.
This makes the airship a truly unmatched heavy lift asset. Sure, huge as it is, when the airship hovers over the back of a CVF to carefully lower a heavy load on deck, the air operations will be seriously affected, but the capability is very, very interesting.

The payload area of the Airlander 50 is sized to take 6 20' containers in two rows of 3 each, sitting abreast, for a total payload of 50 tons. There is also a secondary cargo area, 2.8 m high, 3.93 m wide and 10 m long, which can prove very useful for many uses, including providing a rest area for the human crew when present.
The containerized cargo area is particularly useful, as almost anything can be built into containers, and an airship like this could deliver a small but effective containerized hospital directly to a disaster struck area or rear line in exceptionally short time, and/or deliver workshops and Fitter Sections directly from the amphibious ships to the front line. For example, the british armed forces already have a series of containerized medical facilities including shelter-mounted CT scanners, 44 container workshops and REME repair posts
Deploying containers by air, vertically and without the need for an airport, is in itself an immense operational advantage.

Another interesting aspect of the Airlander, which i suspect is however still largely to be explored, is shown in one image from Hybrid, in which an airship can be seen towing a sonar in the water. It would be interesting to explore this aspect further, because such an airship could be an excellent ASW weapon and a good maritime patrol aircraft, with an important operating radius. The Airlander is said to have a range of 2600 nautical miles (not clear if it is at full 50 tons payload, however). Of course, flying low over the waters to search for submarines and tow a sonar curtain will have a big impact on the operating radius, but it should nonetheless remain impressive.

There are surely aspects and procedures to be studied and determined, but the use of Airships in support of military operations, including at sea, promises to deliver serious advantages.
It is definitely an area where i'd like to see the UK investing. I think there is room for achieving great results.


  1. I must confess that I am very attracted by the Airlander 50 idea. The 50 ton payload and 20 tons vertical lift sound good and it could be a very effective COD aircraft.

    The role that really interests me, though, is as an AEW aircraft. I think that obtaining a CROWSNEST solution involving, say, 4 or 5 Merlins with AEW radar to protect a carrier group, might actually prove more expensive than an Airlander costing £60 million.

    Another capability that could prove very valuable is its use as a counter piracy vessel “as the LEMV can lower up to 150 commandos along with their fast inflatable boats.” It must have one hell of a capacity.

    My only reservation, (apart from joining you in yours about fuel replacement) concerns the business of landing on water. Rough water helped put paid to the idea of using flying boats in certain parts of the world and could militate against the use of airships too.

    1. I think one would not quite be enough, i'd look at a couple, or ideally 3 airships, perhaps procured over time.

      But there are obviously possible issues and things to be demonstrated. Rough weather and rough sea for example, could indeed complicate things greatly.

    2. Gaby

      I would agree that you would need more than one. However, I think that the chances of getting any at all are not that great. I am thinking of the Government's desire to protect the British helicopter industry and the fact helos are what they will probably go for, for AEW at least.

    3. CROWSNEST will pretty much certainly go ahead on the Merlin HM2 fleet. But perhaps there will be the buy of a first airship... it would be an important first step. From there, things could evolve in interesting ways.


  2. What is to stop it being shot down,
    What defences would it have against missils ect..

    1. Considering that only an handful of naval Merlin helicopters are fitted with countermeasures for self defence, and considering that gunfire is virtually incapable to take down one of these, it is not that bad in terms of survivability. It kind of compares favorably.

      More seriously, you of course do not want to wander into an area where there are SAM batteries that can target the airship.
      Gunfire, instead, is less of a worry than it would be on helicopters.
      For a COD or surveillence platform, it is more than enough, arguably.

      For using it in support of amphibious operations you need some more prudence.
      You could fit electronic countermeasures, but they probably wouldn't work very well. It would need a protective system specifically thought for its features... and of course it will never maneuver like a Lynx.

  3. Agree with the concerns about rough weather, that was the demise of the two airships USS Akron & USS Mekon in the 1930's.

    Go for the smaller (cheaper?)20 sized version (say 4 off), fit with naval Merlin avionics plus the ability to use the vigilance AEW pod?
    Perhaps even fit the ability to launch and recover FireScout drones?
    That would give a lot of surveillance and fill some of the gaping hole in maritime patrol. It should still have a good 5t secondary COD capacity (i.e. an F35 engine).

    Given the bulk of the avionics would be presumably subcontracted via Augusta Westland would it be that much of a damage to the UK/IT Helicopter Industry?
    Indeed it may support the creation of thriving Airship industry.

    (Different Anonymous)

  4. In terms if countermeasures, firstly, what about the possibility of Starstreak missile, and secondly, I imagine much of the structure could be made out of materials invisible to radar...

    1. Possibly. It might be feasible to make the airship kind of stealth, mostly by letting the radar beam pass through it without reflecting much. I don't know, however.

      As for starstreak, i don't know how much it would realistically help in this case.

  5. Hi Gabriele,

    I must admit I am not in favour of air ships.
    If we have any spare money, I could find a long list of things that the money could be better spent on.
    Another escort for a start! Not to mention a force of MPA!


    1. @Phil

      "Another escort for a start! Not to mention a force of MPA!"

      Well, yes Phil, you certainly have a strong point there (or rather couple of points).

    2. 60 million for an airship aren't going to buy any kind of escort.
      And while more escorts would very much be welcome, and it is well known that i deem a MPA indispensable, this should not conflict with a genuine search for cost-effective improvements where they can be achieved.

    3. Gaby,

      All that you say is also true but it is not cost-effectiveness that mainly makes me interested in the idea of an airship. It is the pure romance of going back a 1930s idea and finding something still in it. I hope that several of them go into service.

  6. As alluded to earlier the problem here is in operational restrictions due to weather...especially high winds. LTA solutions always fail at this step when used in the maritime environment. One of the advantages, ironically, of the technology was supposed to be resistance to damage though...frag from a missile warhead tends to be focused toward the target and, against an airship, means that damage to the envelope is restricted in area. With cellular construction in the envelope it could take salvos of missiles to actually do enough damage to deflate the thing.

    Realistically organic VTUAV's like MQ-8B or A-160 able to loft varying sizes of search set for periods of 8hrs+ and multi-unit deployable on even basic air-capable vessels offer a lot more of an assured capability in terms of forward ISTAR.

    COD is perhaps a different story as the Fleet can modify their deployment for a one-off 'vertrep'. Whether its worth the effort for what will be a modest COD requirement I'm not sure.

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  12. Not just ISTAR, hoisting any sort of weapons fit up to 20,000 feet massively increases it's range.

    All SAMs have to be designed to beat gravity, though if you start them off in thinner air with a height advantage then the effect on their range is remarkable.

    Gun based systems too, the Indians found that they had to rewrite their range tables when using their artillery at relatively high altitudes. No reason why something like a Mk110 or an Oto 76mm could easily be loften by an airship like the Airlander. I have no idea what range you'd get out of them, considerable increase though.

    It isn't a new idea, the original RN blimps mounted two 12 pounders!

    Also why focus on the Crowsnest solution? The best way to beat stealth is via a VHF radar set, such as the JLENS. Too big for a chopper to carry, not so for a blimp.

    I'll leave my crazier ideas regarding skyhook and sea harriers out for the moment. :)

    One thing to note is that blimps are actually very difficult to shoot down. Even the German's hydrogen filled ones required buckingham ammo ( a bit like more modern tracers ) and lots of it. Modern hydrogen filled beasties take a lot of punishment as Goodyear regularly finds out. Turns out that every hick with a gun takes pot shots at their blimps though as the gas isn't at much higher pressure than atmospheric it only leaks out very slowly.

    Come to think of it, I wonder whether an F-35B could fly slow enough at altitude with it's lift fan engaged to refuel from a blimp doing 40kts or so...

    Also I imagine the equipment fits for the MRA4s are gathering dust in an MoD shed somewhere. The American's never lost a vessel from convoys which were protected by their patrol blimps apparently...

    I love airships, they allow all sorts of crazy thoughts and ideas. :)


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