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.