By Andy Cooke
How can you use airships for military purposes - in a world where heavier-than-air aircraft already exist? Anyone trying to go head-to-head with a Spitfire in some sort of fighter-Zeppelin is obvously asking for trouble.
The first instinct is to say that military airships much after the First World War aren't feasible. Oh, the various militaries explored the possibilities, with airships intended as long-range bombers and as air transport, but as aeroplanes developed further, the roles intended got harder to justify.
Should anyone have ignored the changing situation and attempted to use airships (say in squadron force) as, say, long-range bombers from any time from World War 2 onwards, they'd have been blotted from the sky.
It is, however, not hugely unlikely that they'd have tried. Between the wars, there was a simplistic doctrine around aerial bombing: "The bomber will always get through". This led to insufficient concentration on fighter design (we ended up needing a private citizen to fund the early stages of the Spitfire), or on survivable bombers (the Fairey Battle was a suicide box), or, for that matter, on aerial bombing tactics ("Just concentrate forces and break through; like tanks").
This doesn't mean, though, that military airships are a no-go, although a backlash from early failed mass airship-bomber raids might cause air forces to abandon them. Air Power is far more than fighters and bombers, despite what we may instinctively perceive.
Don't forget the strengths and weaknesses of all aircraft we covered last time:
Strengths: Speed, Reach, Height, Agility/flexibility
Weaknesses: Impermanence, Payload, Fragility, Basing, Weather
Airships still possess all of these. The differences between them and aeroplanes are where lie their disadvantages... and advantages.
With the benefit of several decades more learning by experience, we now see four key air power roles:
Control of the Air
The first of these is where many authors consider using airships, conclude they are unsuitable, and that's as far as it goes. It is, though, by far their weakest role.
Control of the air can be Defensive - when you shoot down the other side's aircraft (detect them, intercept them, engage them) - or Offensive - where you destroy things on the ground that the other side need to take control of the air, such as their parked aircraft and runways and their Air Defence systems (not just radars and listening posts, but the communication systems that tie these together and the missile systems they use for defence).
Most of these are obviously unsuitable roles for ponderous airships... but they do have one very good potential role here. I'll come back to that in the C4ISTAR part.
Air Mobility is a crucial and much glossed-over role. "Flexibility is the key to Air Power" is drummed into every RAF Officer Cadet who goes through the RAF College at Cranwell. Airships have got flexibility in Air Mobility in spades. Far less impermanence (you can stay airborne far longer than most heavier-than-air aircraft) and with greater range than most heavier-than-air aircraft up until the later part of the Twentieth Century (and, with modern technology, could be designed to have even greater range still), they could take payloads to anywhere in the world at short notice. No need for a runway, either.
One of my first instructors said "Aircraft are a tool for getting a payload to a target - all else is drilling holes in clouds."
The payloads that explode and make holes in things get all the attention. The ones that don't explode are often far more useful. It's not just passengers, although this tends to be where authors tend to focus (those who don't see the issues with Control of the Air and give up on airships altogether), but supplies, equipment, vehicles, and the like. Even in OTL, air forces experimented with using airships as aircraft carriers.
C4ISTAR is a term that rarely rolls off the tongue of most people in the pub. Unless you're in a very unusual pub. Or maybe an Officers Mess in the RAF, I suppose.
It stands for: "Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance". Which is an acronym that's obviously gone way out of control. In my time, it began as simply "C2" (Command and Control), before leaping to "C3I" (Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence).
Then, after flirting briefly with being C4I, it leapt full-formed to the amazing acronym we see today.
It's also the first role of Air Power that ever existed, and the one all else grew from - and the one that too many people tend to forget: Get a platform up high and you can see more (giving you all of that "ISTAR" element).
In addition, airborne communications relays massively increase the reach of communications and command and control - without which you do not have an Armed Force but a mob. If you don't have satellites, your communications range may be limited, especially at high bandwidths. Put a communications airship there and you have an instant quasi-satellite.
An airship that is fitted out with antennas to pick up and eavesdrop on enemy radio and radar systems would also be of great use. And, especially with an airship designed for extreme height, if you have one with powerful cameras cruising over areas of interest. Once again - quasi satellites (and a lot cheaper to put up than a spy satellite, and easier to retrieve the film).
Give one (sealed) sufficient altitude, and it could be very difficult to shoot down. Or if you have one at lower level in a location where you've won air superiority, you will have maximum situational awareness and targeting capability over that location. The need for friendly forces situational awareness also cannot be overstated; this gives you that so easily (airships in friendly-controlled areas means you always know exactly where all your forces are).
C4ISTAR ties in to Control of the Air, of course, and here is that role I mentioned earlier: airborne radar aircraft (AWACS) feed into Defensive Counter Air operations. Which is where airships can come in. Yes, they are vulnerable to attack - but modern AWACS aircraft in OTL aren't that much better in that area. You have to deploy them behind your lines and in places where you have air superiority by other means. Or too high for your opponents to reach. They also need to "loiter" for a long time (as do most C4ISTAR aircraft), and suddenly airships look up and say "Hello, now you're talking our language!".
Attack has the categories: - Deep/Strategic Attack, where you attack your adversary's ability to wage war - their structure, organisations, or infrastructure. Airships are unlikely to be suitable for this, unless the opponent has no air defences left.
- Counter Land, where you attack your adversary's fielded forces and supporting infrastructure. Airships could be used in a role here: when you've won air superiority over a battlefield and made it safe for your aircraft to operate with impunity, airships can give you conversion of that to complete battlefield dominance. Airships like flying forts parked high over the battlefield, out of range of ground forces weaponry but, thanks to gravity, well in range of armaments from the airships... you win. Full stop. The psychological effects of that unending and unstoppable bombardment would be immense.
- Counter Sea, where you attack enemy ships and submarines. Airships could be very useful for anti-submarine warfare. In fact, in OTL, had we had airships to escort convoys in the "Gap" in the centre of the Atlantic, the Allies could have won the Battle of the Atlantic a lot earlier and with far less loss.
- Electronic Warfare, where you can jam the opponent's radars and communications thanks to having your vehicles parked high up (improving range over the limb of the Earth) but in airspace controlled by you.
The one key limitation of airships here is the weather - they can be more subject to weather limitations than heavier-than-air aircraft, but an air force with a mix of airships and heavier-than-air aircraft would have the flexibility to cope.
While you'll never have dogfighting airships (except maybe in circumstances where very-high-altitude aeroplanes aren't yet developed and one side is attempting to counter the other side's use of high-altitude airships used in some of these roles. Hmmm...), there are plenty of other roles where another timeline could easily have employed airships.
You could have AWACS airships. Airships used as Airborne Communications Relays. Electronic eavesdropping airships. Spy airships. Airships used for visual situational awareness for friendly forces.
Airships watching the seas for submarine activity (and maybe having their own anti-submarine bombing capability). Flying Electronic Warfare airships. Air Transport airships for passengers, vehicles, equipment, and so forth.
Even flying airship forts to loiter high, high over battlefields in areas of air supremacy and relentlessly devastate enemy land forces (hugely underlining the existing military adage that "If you lose the war in the air, you lose the war").