In June 1933 the United States Navy commissioned its second aerial aircraft carrier U.S.S. Macon. The primary tactical advantage of an aircraft carrier then, as now, was its ability to fight from over the horizon remaining undetected by the enemy even while delivering fatal blows against it.
The top speed of a surface carrier like HMS Queen Elizabeth (which will start sea trials circa February 2017) will be 50 miles per hour. The top speed of an “aeroscraft” rigid airship in 2017 will be 125 miles per hour. For an enemy the difficulty, per unit of time, of hunting down an aerial, as opposed to surface, carrier is increased by circa 500% (i.e. the greater distance the aerial carrier, as a result of being circa 150%% faster, can move north or south multiplied by the greater distance it can move east or west regardless of the nature of the terrain beneath it).
In normal conditions the maximum distance a (say 30m tall) target on the surface can be observed from a (say 30m tall) warship or vehicle borne radar on the surface is circa 30 miles because it depends on line of sight and so has a horizon. The maximum distance an aerial target could be seen from is 50 miles but in this case the limit is the capacity of the eye. This capacity does not constrain ordinary radar. A target high enough up in the air can be detected by ordinary radar on the surface from up to 240 miles further away than a target on the surface. This is a disadvantage aerial carriers face relative to surface carriers but only against surface based observation. Aerial units can limit the effectiveness of enemy ordinary surface radar to as little as 13 miles (or less) by approaching the enemy radar, at not more than 20 metres (or less) above the surface, along the nap of the earth. For example, in the 1982 Falklands conflict Argentine warplanes targeting Royal Navy warships often approached along the nap of the earth before “popping up” to fire air-to-surface missiles.
It is for the reason of line of sight restrictions that airborne early warning radar (AWACS) is so important to aerial warfare since it cannot be snuck up on and can detect targets at up to an order of magnitude greater range than radar on the surface. Even aerial carriers would find it difficult to elude AWACS. One way to would be to remain out of range and reconnoiter the AWACS with, say, scout drones deployed on the carrier itself specifically for this purpose. Warplanes could then be vectored from the carrier against the enemy AWACS without the location of the carrier necessarily being revealed. Indeed, the aerial aircraft carrier might be given the secondary function of acting as an airborne early warning system itself.
Over-the-horizon radars are less important (the US Air Force mothballed its main systems in the 1990s) in 2017 than airborne early warning radars. Nonetheless, over-the-horizon systems, which use either lower frequencies or alternative high frequency techniques, are also of significance. For example, the Jindalee Operational Radar network of the Royal Australian Air Force (which scans the northern approaches to Oceania) has a range of 2,700 (± 900) miles. The principal weaknesses of such systems is that they are not useful to operations beyond their envelope and are more vulnerable to attack.
In combat against surface radars the aerial carrier itself (as well as its aircraft) could adopt nap-of-the-earth movement to frustrate the enemy’s line-of-sight. In combat against airborne early warning systems (AWACS) the aerial carrier would seek to attack from 300 or more miles away and then retreat for retrieval of its air component.
Aircraft carrier vulnerability to enemy reconnaissance is further compounded when considering enemy real-time aircraft tracking from space. This is an ability that the US military will – SpaceX Irridium satellite launches permitting – acquire no later than August 2018 and which they probably already did acquire, say, circa 2014. On this basis one might suppose that by 2023 the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation will too.
Just as maximizing the effectiveness of armoured forces in the 1940s required the implementation of a combined arms doctrine whereby armoured units fought in conjunction with motorized infantry and tactical bombers, so aircraft carriers in the 2020s will require a combined arms doctrine where carriers fight in conjunction with space, and cyber, forces to maintain elusiveness.
The advantage heightened mobility gives to an aerial aircraft carrier is not confined to tactics. Imagine that the Russian Federation invaded Latvia and a N.A.T.O. brigade around Riga is holding out for reinforcements. A surface carrier launched to the rescue sailing at two thirds speed from the UK would take circa forty hours to arrive in Riga whereas an airborne carrier would take thirteen hours. This might make the difference between relieving Riga and not doing so.
“Worldwide Aeros Corp” is planning the ML86X rigid helium filled airship “aeroscraft” which will have a length of circa 280 metres, a maximum cargo capacity of 500 tons (with cargo bay dimensions of 138m long x 22m beam x 16m high), a range of 5,100 miles and price tag of, say, £180 million for civilian use. The company made its first test flight of the smaller “Pelican” 81 metre long prototype “Dragon Dream” on 31-Aug-2016, for which the Pentagon has provided a grant of US$50 million.
It is my suggestion that the UK government take steps to ensure that the ML86X is built for aircraft carrier operations and that, subject to trials, a fleet be purchased.
Assuming an ML86X price tag for a military (stealthy) version of £450 million each ML86X would be capable of carrying the weight of 10 fully loaded 32 ton F35B (the short takeoff vertical landing war plane) in its cargo bay, plus 134 tons of stores on top of circa 40 tons (if the system had the same weight as a steam catapult) of electromagnetic aircraft launch systems (built into the cargo bay floor) for which circa 90 metres of length might be needed and (if planes were to be taken on board horizontally) 4 tons of electromagnetic arrester systems (the electromagnetic launch systems being essential if the airships are to be drone capable given that drones cannot absorb the stress of steam catapult launches). The aircraft could park these 10 F35Bs in a single 170 metre long row with 5 metres clear either side (the F35B wingspan is 11 metres) or, if the ML86X could be built with a circa 5 metre wider beam, the aircraft could be accommodated in a double row 84 metres long with 2 metres clearance either side which might also be possible if the F35C were used. The F35C wingspan is 13 metres but its wing tips are foldable and with the wings folded wingspan is reduced to 9.6 metres. 9.6 metres might allow double parking without requiring the aerial aircraft carrier to have a wider beam.
For aerodynamic stability the best warplane launch direction would be out of the rear of the aerial carrier. For the same reason the best landing approach would be from underneath using VTOL capacity, however, if it transpired that the optimal taking on board speed for the carrier was dangerously close to the jet warplanes stall speed then an arrester system could be used. In the 1930s the USN aerial aircraft carriers took planes on board by catching them on an arrester hook dangling from the underside of the airship. The hook formed part of a pulley system that then moved them into the hanger so this angle of approach has form. If underside landing, which would suggest VTOL capable aircraft, was required and it was desired to equip the carrier with drones then developing such short take off vertical landing drones would have merit in itself.
Vertical take-off and landing warplanes effectiveness is significantly reduced by the heavy fuel consumption required for vertical take off. This is one reason why they are not the norm. Ideally, therefore, the warplanes on aerial aircraft carriers would take off, if not land, horizontally, which would mean the cargo bay would have to incorporate the aforementioned catapult into its floor and the “aeroscraft” would have to be redesigned at the stern. However, arrester gear might not be needed because the high speed of the aerial carrier, so long as it were not so slow that war planes stalled at it, would enable warplanes to approach and touch down at a much lower differential speed than when touching down on a surface carrier.
In case horizontal landing was desired the aerial aircraft carrier might have to be made wider in the beam (and so would have to be longer too to remain airworthy) so that planes could land (from the stern) ideally beside the strip from which planes would also (if not simultaneously) take off.
[Ed: Part II of this report will be published later this week.]