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Could Airships Really Revolutionize the U.S. Navy?

Here’s a radical idea: the U.S. Navy should embrace airships to supplement its battle fleets.

Nearly a hundred years after the Navy tinkered with airships, a new proposal has emerged that would see helium-powered airships carry cargo, act as flying sensor platforms, and even carry boxes of missiles to augment the firepower of surface ships.

The idea is put forward in the latest issue of Proceedings, the journal of the U.S. Naval Institute. The article, titled “Airships? Yes, Really!,” claims that lighter-than-air craft have the potential to “transform military logistics, command-and-control, and surveillance and reconnaissance.”

In the 1920s and 1930s, the U.S. Navy experimented with the concept of airships as scouts for fleets at sea. The Navy’s surface force still relied on battleships to provide the decisive arm in naval combat, and the fleet that engaged first could well be victorious. The service purchased and manned several airships, including two, the USS Macon and the USS Akron (above), that could launch and recover up to five scout aircraft each.

A series of accidents, including the loss of both airship carriers, ended the airship experiment.

But some 90 years later, the technology has changed. Airships, the article claims, are ready to make a comeback thanks to mature technologies and the capabilities they bring to the table. Airships are no longer filled with hydrogen, instead filled with non-flammable helium, and are actually more difficult to shoot down than one might think. Here's Lockheed Martin's experimental P-791 airship

The article proposes several potential uses for airships. One important role: a radar picket for the rest of the fleet. Outfitted with a modern, active electronically scanned array radar, an airship could see beyond the horizon of ship-based radars, detecting sea-skimming missiles at far greater ranges. An airship could fly above a fleet for days and weeks whereas an aircraft would need to land after several hours, even with mid-air refueling.

Taking the concept a step further, an airship could carry defensive missiles to engage incoming missiles—or offensive missiles to engage any targets it detects.

Another useful role is as a transport. Current airship designs, the author points out, can carry up to 500 tons—more than six times as much cargo as a C-17 Globemaster III transport. Airships can fly across oceans and then deliver their cargo onto the decks of ships, onto beachheads secured by Marines, or even reload missile silos on the decks of warships near battle zones.

Could airships bring new capabilities to the Navy and the U.S. military in general? It’s worth thinking about.



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