Key point: Flying aircraft carriers are doable, but it is unclear how useful they would be in practice.
The U.S. Navy should consider reviving a concept that died a catastrophic death in the 1930s, one journalist recommended in the pages of Proceedings, the professional journal of the U.S. Naval Institute.
Kyle Mizokami argued that the American fleet should look into large airships as carriers for unmanned aerial vehicles, in essence updating the fleet’s costly experimentation with Akron-class airships more than 80 years ago. Airships could complement multi-billion-dollar aircraft carriers.
“The necessary technology already exists for unmanned airships to team up with UAVs to provide modern-day equivalents of the Akron-class airships,” Mizokami wrote.
The Navy on its official website describes the brief service of the two Akrons, which at 785 feet long could cruise at 50 knots over a distance of thousands of miles while carrying 89 crew, seven machine guns and four fighter aircraft that launched and landed via a complex trapeze device.
During an exercise near Cuba in 1932, the New Jersey-based Akron “succeeded in spotting the light cruiser Raleigh and a dozen destroyers, positively identifying them on the eastern horizon two minutes later,” the Navy explained.
The sailing branch quoted historian Richard Smith. “Consideration given to the weather, duration of 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,” Smith wrote. “There was not a military airplane in the world in 1932 which could have given the same performance, operating from the same base."
But Akron crashed in 1933, killing 73 people. Sister ship Macon crashed in 1935, killing two. The Navy abandoned airships in favor of ship-based aircraft carriers. Still, the Navy should reconsider the concept, Mizokami wrote.
A high-flying airship, equipped with sensors and networking capabilities, could reach its destination faster than a seaborne aircraft carrier and remain on station for days or weeks at a time. The airship could carry a battery of several dozen unmanned aerial vehicles, each equipped with radar, electro-optical, and other sensors, to extend the sensor reach of the mothership and hence the surface fleet. Those same drones could pack a variety of weapons for use against ships, submarines, lower-performance aircraft such as helicopters, and targets on land.
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 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.
The Pentagon in recent years has experimented with airships for cargo and surveillance missions. Several prototypes have flown but none have led to major acquisitions programs.
In 2005 the Navy acquired an American Blimp Model A-170. MZ-3A was 178 feet long and flew at a top speed of around 40 knots. Like many airships, the helium-filled A-170 performed best at low altitude — just a few thousand feet, at most.
The Navy’s blimp spent time with test squadrons in New Jersey and Maryland testing out various sensors. “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,” explained Doug Abbotts, a spokesman for Naval Air Systems Command. “The airship also expands the possibilities for developing large multi-dimensional apertures/arrays that aren’t physically achievable with any other airborne technology.”
In 2010 the airship also deployed to Alabama to assist in the cleanup following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. MZ-3 acquisition and operations between 2006 and 2012 cost the Navy $3.6 million, according to the Asbury Park Press newspaper in New Jersey.
The Navy grounded the MZ-3A in 2013. “It is being deflated,” Abbotts told Asbury Park Press. “It’s not that we have a lack of funding. We have a lack of mission.” The Navy instead has invested in high-flying surveillance drones and F-35B jump jets and other vertical-launching aircraft that can fly from a variety of amphibious ships.
Mizokami is undeterred in his advocacy. “The past 100-plus years of naval aviation have seen experimental concepts come and go. Some, like the sea-launched fighter, are unlikely ever to come back. Others, such as the airship carrier, could return with a new twist. Cost issues notwithstanding, 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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