Monday, July 26, 2021

After 90 Years, Can US Navy Airships Make A Comeback To Become The ‘Eyes For The Fleet’

The US Navy’s Akron-class airships — scouting and reconnaissance platforms — were built in the 1930s. The intended use of the airships was to act as “eyes for the fleet”. While the concept of airships is about 90 years old, is it possible that with the modernization of military technology, they might have a resurrection in the 21st century?

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Proceedings, the journal of the US Naval Institute, first deliberated on this, saying the airships have the potential to “transform military logistics, command-and-control, and surveillance and reconnaissance”.

In the 1930s, the US Navy commissioned two Akron-class airships. They are 785 feet in length and could go up to a speed of 72 knots carrying 89 crew members, four aircraft, and seven machine guns. 

In 1932, during a search exercise with the Scouting Fleet, the Akron was tasked with finding a group of Guantanamo Bay-bound destroyers. After facing initial failure to find the destroyers due to bad weather, Akron succeeded in spotting the light cruiser Raleigh (CL-9) and a dozen destroyers. The airship sighted the second group of destroyers achieving a “qualified success” in its initial test with the Scouting Fleet.

The Navy’s official website quoted historian Richard K. Smith as saying, “Consideration given to the weather, duration of the flight, a track of more than 3,000 miles flown, her material deficiencies, and the rudimentary character of aerial navigation at that date, the Akron’s performance was remarkable.”

“There was not a military airplane in the world in 1932 which could have given the same performance, operating from the same base,” he wrote.

However, in 1933, the Akron crashed killing 73 crew members including Rear Adm. William A. Moffett, the Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics. Then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the accident a “national disaster”.

Two years later, the sister ship Macon crashed killing two people on board and with that, the era of airships ended. The Navy moved to aircraft carriers. 

In 2005, the US Navy acquired Blimp MZ-3A, a modified Blimp Model A-170. “Due to the size and/or aerodynamic limitations imposed by some of these systems, an airship provides a faster and more consistent development path than ordinarily possible in fixed- or rotary-wing aircraft,” said Doug Abbotts, a spokesman for Naval Air Systems Command.

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“The airship also expands the possibilities for developing large multi-dimensional apertures/arrays that aren’t physically achievable with any other airborne technology.”

However, the airship was also grounded in 2013 due to “lack of mission”.

Now with modern technology, the article argued that attack airships would not replace traditional surface warships but instead augment them, providing a new layer of distributed lethality to the fleet and support for Marines and soldiers on the ground. 

“Airships can screen large swathes of the ocean where enemy contact is unlikely but some friendly sensor presence — backed up by weapons — would be useful. Convoys would gain access to improved situational awareness as well as an airborne antisubmarine warfare capability,” it said.

American Defense manufacturer Lockheed Martin experimented with the idea and created a hybrid airship – P-791. The company claims that the Hybrid Air Vehicle can be designed as an unmanned or manned intelligence gatherer or transport vehicle.

It can fly for up to three weeks at an altitude of 20,000 feet. The airship is equipped with cameras, infrared sensors, communications relays, and other payloads that can scan the whole battlefield.

The journal concluded that the airship if developed today without the funding issues, could carry a battery of several dozen unmanned aerial vehicles, each equipped with radar, electro-optical, and other sensors, to extend the sensor reach the mothership and hence the surface fleet.

It could also be equipped with a variety of weapons for use against ships, submarines, lower-performance aircraft such as helicopters, and targets on land. “The aircraft carrier’s future seems fairly secure, but tomorrow’s fleet almost certainly will sail alongside other platforms that project air power in new and innovative ways.”

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