I heard this interesting radio segment on the future potential of airships on NPR's Science Friday, featuring guests Brandon Buerge of Guardian Flight Systems (largely providing the technical commentary) and Tom Crouch of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum (largely providing the historical commentary). Though the article was a little toned down in places for the benefit of the general public listener, but it was still very informative on a number of points provided by the guests. Listening to these guys certainly gives you the impression that airships have a real chance now to round a corner and come back into widespread use in both military and civilian applications.
Since airships disappeared from widespread use in the 1930's, we have seen a number of attempts to bring them back into fashion in a whole manner of roles, but with only very limited adoption. But things could change soon; the US Army has awarded a more than half-billion dollar contract to Northrop Grumman and Hybrid Air Vehicles, which Buerge says is "more money than the [airship] industry has seen probably in the last 40 years together", to develop the HAV3 hybrid airship for the Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) contract. Positive experience with the LEMV can only help the reputation of this technology and perhaps convince the US military to take a chance on utilizing airships in other applications, notably transport.
It is only through wide scale adoption by the military (and only the US military really has the funds to pay for the early development) that airships can hope to make any form of a comeback in the commercial world, by funding the design, construction and operational research for successful, economical and large airships. And the opportunity for the airship is probably now better than ever. The military need for long endurance surveillance aircraft (which drove the LEMV requirements) is very important for current operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Large airships can provide significant fuel savings over conventional transport aircraft, and can potentially deliver cargo to areas with very limited infrastructure (though the infrastructure needs for full-time basing is unclear for very large airships). Also, as Buerge states in the radio segment, airships scale up must more efficiency than fixed-wing aircraft, making very-large airlifters a practical possibility.
If the airship can find a home in the US military and elsewhere, then it would only be a matter of time before the commercial world can reap the same rewards for a practical cost. The commercial cargo industries are the obvious benefactors of the technology, but passenger services could be a reality too. Never mind flying cruise ships, what about flying car ferries along the main sea links in Europe and Asia? Airships would clearly be a lot faster than the ferries, the only real competition for a speedy crossing would come from something like the Channel Tunnel, and such rail links are few and far between. Airships wouldn't even have to stop at the shore like a ferry, and could fly inland to a large population center - London to Paris with the family, pet dog and the car in less than 3 hours, with a great view of the English and French countryside along the way? Beats the 20kg of luggage and 30 inch seat pitch you get with the airlines.
(Lockheed Martin Photo)
As reported by flightglobal, according to this report by the Project 2049 Institute, Taiwan wants STOVL fighters. Not many countries have expressed a lot of interest in STOVL jet aircraft, and even fewer have gone through and actually operated them. The pros and cons of STOVL fighters in general have been widely discussed, both in the context of the new F-35B (STOVL variant of the JSF program), and the Harrier that preceded it. For a little background info, an excellent critique of the operational difficulties and opportunities of the F-35B can be found here. Many countries rightly see that the benefits gained from a STOVL design - the ability to operate from austere, damaged or very small runways - do not outweigh the increased costs and overall performance disadvantages compared with similar conventional aircraft.
The jet that made STOVL famous was of course the Harrier, originally designed to allow the Western Allies to maintain air operations in Central Europe even if major airfields were damaged or destroyed by Soviet air or missile attack. Of course the world is a different place now, and such threats to airfields are essentially non-existent. Since the end of the Cold War, one of the few operational advantages of a STOVL jet aircraft just isn’t necessary anymore. Or is it? The US and UK certainly aren’t under such a threat, but Taiwan is a different story, and one not often noticed in the STOVL debate.
Taiwan is under an ever increasing threat from mainland China (PRC). The PLAAF, like the other branches of the PRC military, is in a rapid modernization effort to field not only more advanced combat aircraft, but also enabler platforms such as AEW, electronic attack and surveillance aircraft, which make the combat aircraft that much more effective. But the PLAAF is only half of the problem for Taiwan. The other factor is the PRC’s large and capable short and medium-ranged ballistic missile force. On day one of any conflict, it will be this force that kicks things off, and very near the top of the target list will be Taiwan’s air fields. With the ROCAF knocked out, PLAAF aircraft can operate over Taiwan with relative impunity.
Taiwan of course knows this and has taken some dramatic steps to reduce the susceptibility of ROCAF fighters, such as building huge underground hangar complexes, supposedly large enough to house half of Taiwan’s fighter jets. But however well you protect the hangars, these planes still have to go outside and takeoff from a long, paved runway. And runways have historically proven to be a very vulnerable airfield asset to enemy air attack.
So the issue of airfield vulnerability is very real in Taiwan, just as it was in Central Europe during the Cold War. The advantages of STOVL fighters for the ROCAF start to show themselves. Most critiques of STOVL technology largely dismiss the idea of taking-off vertically from small clearings as impractical because, although possible, those aircraft could not carry a useful fuel and/or weapons payload. The best hiding places are impractical to operate from and such wide dispersion of air assets would be logistically impossible to support. However, I read this article, from 1986, advocating the advantages of the widespread use of STOVL aircraft in Central Europe (actually, it uses the older term VSTOL, though both Harriers back then and F-35Bs have similar vertical take-off capabilities and limitations). The article pushes a hybrid approach to STOVL operations. From the article:
During combat, the aircraft…would be dispersed over a wide area, with no more than three or four aircraft based together in a single location or hide... Each hide would include parking for the aircraft, a pad suitable for vertical takeoff and landing, and enough fuel for each aircraft to fly to other locations within 50 nautical miles, three times a day, for three to seven days. To reduce transportation requirements, a hide would have only one reload of air-to-air missiles for each aircraft and only minor maintenance capabilities.
…A cycle would begin when the aircraft takes off vertically from the hide, carrying only its basic missile load. It would then fly to a predetermined short strip, which might be a field or road, where air-to-surface munitions and fuel are located. This strip and others like it would be used for only short periods of time, perhaps less than a day. Landing at the strip, the aircraft would be loaded with air-to-surface munitions and have its fuel topped off. Using a short takeoff run [allowing a full fuel/weapons load], the aircraft would fly an attack mission, returning to the strip to be refueled and rearmed until the scheduled sorties in the cycle were flown. At this time, it would recover at the hide for crew change and minor maintenance.
The article goes on to consider several other details, but the above should give you the fundamental idea. The context is obviously about ground attack operations in Central Europe, but parallels do exist. Instead of reloading bombs at the intermediate landing strips, in a Taiwan scenario they would be loading BVR missiles and enough fuel to mount CAPs against incoming PLAAF aircraft. This basing strategy has another plus side in a possible PRC-Taiwan conflict – mobility:
Since hides and strips would be constantly changing, enemy intelligence on their location would be perishable. Perishable intelligence requires a quick response, limiting time available to concentrate forces, plan, and execute an attack. This circumstance reduces the probability for attack success.
This limited response time combined with difficult detection will decrease the ability for the PRC to destroy these dynamic mini-bases through the use of stand-off ballistic missiles. Countering such a tactic would require PLAAF strike fighters in the air over the probable target zone, and as long as the ROCAF is still in the fight, that will not be an easy task.
I know that this is far from the most efficient way to operate an air defense campaign. This probably is as close to guerilla warfare as modern air combat can get, but desperate times would call for desperate measures. Depending on the objectives of the PRC, the ROCAF would only need to be able to hold out until allied reinforcements arrive, or a diplomatic ceasefire is negotiated.
In my previous post I complained that the F-35 was not a real air combat fighter, and by extension, the STOVL F-35B would be even less of one. But for a STOVL platform, right now the F-35B is the only game in town and whether the mission is air-to-air or air-to-ground, it is a big improvement over the current Harriers. But if Taiwan continues to be unsuccessful in getting onto the JSF program, perhaps an indigenous STOVL design concept may make an appearance down the road.