The device of gold displayed below is not a pair of Marine Corps or Navy officer’s coveted wings whose left airfoil has broken off. Rather, it represents a forgotten piece of naval history that has an innovative role to play in the modern maritime domain. These, the wings of a different breed of naval officer, are the Dirigible/Balloon Pilot Insignia awarded to those who once dared to climb into the clouds on huge ships filled with invisible gas.1
From early reconnaissance missions in the years when winged aircraft were barely in their infancy to flying aircraft carriers enhancing the fleet air arm to key anti-submarine missions in the Battle of the Atlantic, balloons, blimps, and dirigibles have played a historic role within the U.S. Navy.2 This is a role that modern lighter-than-air craft should be leveraged into once again. As the U.S. military faces renewed great-power competition and increasing challenges in maintaining superiority in the undersea domain, a pairing of the capabilities offered by large lighter-than-air craft with developing and extant technologies must be explored.
A Naval Community Rooted in History
U.S. Navy dirigibles and their pilots have long been a key part of the U.S. Navy’s antisubmarine-warfare (ASW) and reconnaissance missions. Lighter-than-air blimps found their start with the Navy in the hydrogen-filled Dirigible Non-Rigid Number 1 (DN-1) ordered 14 May 1915. The 175-foot long American constructed craft was designed to scout beyond the Atlantic coastline for German commerce raiders and submarines.3 Little more than a gondola and propeller motors affixed to a wide, torpedo-shaped bag of gas, DN-1 ultimately would crash during a trial flight. However, the craft’s usefulness nevertheless impressed Navy engineers. Soon, as the United States entered the World War I in 1917, large orders of B- and C-type rigid-hulled airships were signed with builders such as Goodyear Tire & Rubber and the Connecticut Aircraft Company. Sixteen U.S. Navy dirigibles costing nearly $1 million were built over the course of the war, with more than twice as many orders not being completed due to the signing of the 1918 Armistice.4
These aircraft were an invaluable asset to the Navy’s first-ever ASW campaign against the unrestricted submarine warfare of the Imperial German Navy. Early airships struggled to be effective in severe winds; their large, canvas-on-metal-frame bodies could act as sails driving the ship into a crash, but they and their brave operators had several successes during the Great War. C-class blimps and their crews of four officers operated extensively across America’s East and West Coasts, logging 13,500 hours of airtime. Their 26-hour endurance far exceeded that of any other aircraft available at the time, and they were able to vector seaplanes to attack submarines they spotted.5
It was during the interwar period, however, that the U.S. Navy’s lighter-than-air fleet truly expanded. The Navy recognized the effectiveness of these craft in the ASW role as well as their potential for fleet reconnaissance as demonstrated by the Imperial German Navy’s use of large dirigible Zeppelins. Using war reparations owed by Germany, the U.S. Navy ordered the USS Los Angeles (ZR-3), the first of several massive dirigibles built by the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin company for the fleet during the 1920s. These vessels relied on safe helium instead of the volatile hydrogen gas used in previous generations of airships, and they ranged from 500 to nearly 800 feet in length.6
The Los Angeles was only a testbed, though, used to develop technology for follow-on airships as well as to familiarize naval aviators with operating the new large craft. The zenith of rigid-hulled airships in the U.S. Navy arrived in 1931 and 1933 with the construction of the USS Akron (ZRS-4) and Macon (ZRS-5). Each bearing a squadron of six trapeze-launched and recovered Sparrowhawk biplanes and a crew of 60 officers and men, the 785-foot, 75-knot–capable vessels were designed to be the ultimate scouting tool of the interwar fleet.
Equipped with eight propellers driven by an equal number of 560-horsepower gas engines, they could achieve a nearly 7,000 nautical-mile operational range. A spy basket was even installed, allowing crew to be lowered several hundred feet beneath the vessels so that they could monitor the sea below while the ship remained concealed in cloud cover. The airships performed their role successfully in naval exercises, keeping their relatively vulnerable bulks out of range of “enemy” ships while their scout planes relayed position information back to them.7
Tragically, both of these vessels ultimately would meet their ends due to avoidable weather events. The Akron was destroyed in 1933 when a violent Atlantic gale caused her to dive into the sea, and the Macon was lost in 1935 when a severe wind shear caused structural damage leading to a controlled crash into the Pacific. The world at large, and the U.S. military in particular, ended their trial of large dirigible applications due to these crashes as well as the disastrous loss of the German Zeppelin Company’s LZ-129 Hindenburg in 1937, her explosion caused by her use of volatile hydrogen instead of inert helium due to U.S. export bans.
Despite these tragedies, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps continued to use lighter-than-air craft due to the unique advantages they offered. During the World War II, non–rigid-hulled inflatable blimps were widely used in reconnaissance and ASW functions similar to their purpose during World War I but with their scope expanded to transoceanic convoy patrol duties. From 1941 to 1945, 154 vessels of five separate airship classes operated in the Pacific, Atlantic, Caribbean, and Mediterranean. They ranged in size from the most common, 250-foot, 10-crew K-class blimps to the 310-foot, 14-crew M-class large ASW blimps capable of speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour while carrying a payload of eight depth charges.8
The 13 ZP squadrons of Navy Airship Wings 1 through 5 used their ability to stay airborne for more than 50 hours to find, and in some cases attack, German and Japanese submarines with the ordnance the blimps carried. The airships of squadron ZP-14, for example, were able to completely deny the use of the Strait of Gibraltar by Axis submarines during 1945 and participated in the sinking of German U-boats and the location and clearance of naval minefields.9
More than 1,000 dirigible pilots served in the U.S. Navy over the course of World War II, earning their unique single-winged badge as they worked tirelessly to keep the vital lifelines of Liberty ships and warships safe from submarine attacks and minefields. Their efforts were not without risk, either. A particularly harrowing blimp-on-submarine action occurred off the Florida coast on 18 July 1943, when the K-47 under command of Lieutenant Nelson Grills spotted the veteran Type VIIC U-boat, U-134, shortly after midnight. Patrol blimps typically would locate enemy submarines and vector aircraft or ships to destroy them. That night, though, Lieutenant Grills realized there was no time to call for support. U-134 was on course to attack several nearby undefended merchant ships, and despite the U-boat’s considerable antiaircraft armament, K-47 bravely closed in to strike. From 250 feet, K-47 maneuvered to bomb the surfaced submarine. The U-boat’s attack was stopped due to damage inflicted to it, but not before the German vessel shot down the K-47, leading to the death of one crew member. Grills received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his courageous attack.10
While the heritage of Navy lighter-than-air craft did not continue with any major investment following World War II and during the second half of the 20th century, blimps have found military applications in recent conflicts that highlight the opportunity they represent for future naval applications.
In Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, as well as in other operations in the war on terror, the U.S. Army has deployed the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS). These platforms are stationary blimps, or aerostats, which use helium gas to elevate large, remotely controlled, state-of-the-art sensor platforms to altitudes above 6,000 feet. Since gas instead of an internal combustion engine and wings are used to keep these drones at altitude, the JLENS offers the Army virtually unlimited station keeping for surveillance systems and fire-control radars that can communicate long-range targeting data to ground-based weapons for installation defense.11
The Army also has committed to further investment in lighter-than-air vehicles, commissioning the Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) project via British Hybrid Air Vehicles company, a 300-foot, 92-mph–capable helium airship with a 10-ton carrying capacity. The vessel was developed to provide a long-endurance surveillance capability using wide-area motion imagery technology with a five-day flight endurance.12 While the project was defunded following production, military applications of lighter-than-air craft remain present in the minds of U.S. military leadership as an ideal pairing with modern surveillance and reconnaissance systems.
Enhanced ASW: A Real and Present Demand
As the U.S. military transitions back into an era of great-power competition with eyes toward the importance of sea control as stated in A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power, the advancing undersea platforms of our rivals threaten to put America’s way of life at risk.13 Unlike the relative quiet of the post–Cold War period, today’s undersea domain is an active and challenging one. As stated by Vice Admiral Andrew Lewis, Navy ships operating in the Atlantic must now view it as a contested space with an ever-increasing number of Russian submarines deploying there.14 In particular, the effectiveness of Russia’s next-generation nuclear-powered submarines such as the Project 885 Yasen pose a real challenge for U.S. Navy theater ASW operations.15
The threat to maritime safety posed by near-peer competitor submarine fleets as they increase both in size, operational experience, and technological capabilities is one that will continue to grow and must not be underestimated, particularly in light of Russian Federation military actions in Ukraine. In the first two decades of the 21st century, the Russian Navy’s submarine fleet has grown to a force of 58 submarines including numerous new or fully overhauled nuclear-powered vessels.16 At an even faster pace of growth, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy submarine force has grown to a 60-boat fleet, including some with cutting-edge air-independent propulsion plants.17
While our adversaries are quickly advancing their submarine forces, the U.S. Navy’s own ASW capabilities may be strained in a confrontation. While the Navy has wisely developed and deployed the P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and has continued procurement of the Virginia-class fast-attack submarine (SSN) at a rate of two per year, such force improvements may not be adequate. The Poseidon has suffered from concerningly low mission-readiness rates of 53–70 percent in 2018–20 due to a lack of supportable sustainment strategy in the aircraft fleet.18
America’s SSN force is facing a well-documented dip in numbers leading to extraordinary demand strain on the multimission submarine platforms. Even with expensive lifespan extensions for the aging Los Angeles–class SSNs, optimistic projections put the U.S. submarine force, the nation’s most capable ASW tool, at less than 70 ships by 2028.19 Ultimately, finding a lower-cost innovative solution to bolster the fleet’s ASW arm in an asymmetric way must be prioritized both to improve the Navy’s ability to keep the sea lanes safe and to free financial resources and SSNs for other mission sets.
New Technology Paired With Old
Just as they once did in the world wars, lighter-than-air craft should be considered as a valuable tool to the Navy in maintaining dominance in the undersea domain. Currently employed ASW systems such as the ALQ-218 ESM system and the approximately 500-pound AN/APY-10 surface search radar of the P-8A, the approximately 60-pound AN/ASQ-508A magnetic anomaly detection (MAD) system of the P-8I, or the 270-pound AN/AQS-22 dipping sonar array of the MH-60R are all easily within the weight capacity of a dirigible even a quarter of the size of the Army’s LEMV craft.20 A payload of AN/SSQ-125 multistatic sonobuoys, periscope-searching LiDAR systems, and a long-range communications suite for use while at high altitude also could be fitted. A large, lighter-than-air Navy platform would be able to deploy sonobuoys, dipping sonar, and scanned radars simultaneously with multiday, multi–thousand-mile endurance. In a way that no current Navy asset can, such a craft could easily hover above a located submarine and maintain continuous prosecution without risk of counterattack.
Deploying a squadron of three such aircraft to Iceland or the Shetland Islands would give commanders a tool to maintain constant track on any submarine attempting to pass through the GIUK gap into the Atlantic. Additional advantages in fuel economy over the squadron of P-8As required to maintain such continuous maritime patrol-and-reconnaissance coverage also would represent a significant cost savings to the Navy, as well as an up to 90 percent drop in carbon emissions compared to currently operated platforms.21 Finally, P-8 program acquisition costs are above $275 million per aircraft.22 Lighter-than-air craft offer a comparatively inexpensive procurement price tag for their increased capability, with the Army’s LEMV program only costing $172 million per large aircraft, this lower price holistically including research and development.23
On a smaller scale, a larger number of more diminutive unmanned helium-lifted craft with dipping sonar arrays, or even simply small frequency-modulated surface search radars, could continuously cover a large swath of ocean such as the South China Sea, reporting detections of hostile periscopes or snorkel masts to offensive ASW assets. Using a hybrid electric propulsion system and the relatively large surface area of such dirigibles’ hulls for solar panels, solar power theoretically could increase their station-keeping time to a nearly unlimited endurance. Developing innovative autonomous platforms such as small lighter-than-air craft can provide our future force with a valuable capability to confront near-peer competitors as demanded by the Third Offset Strategy.24
Modern technology can effectively mitigate the historical risks naval dirigibles faced. Utilizing helium gas to prevent risks of explosion, advances in weather forecasting and Doppler weather radar to easily avoid hazardous storms, and modern material science and fiberglass construction to improve hull integrity against unexpected wind events will all ensure any modern lighter-than-air craft does not meet the demise of the Akron, Macon, or Hindenburg.
Lighter-than-air craft, from flimsy blimps to massive dirigibles, represent an important part of naval aviation’s heritage. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Navy pilots with their single-winged badges gave their lives in service to their country on board these vessels, both due to enemy action and weather disasters, which were unavoidable due to the technology of the time. Today, airships could provide multimission platforms with roles within the ASW mission and beyond. Large dirigibles with long-range and multiday station-keeping times may be capable of offering a lower-cost replacement to such platforms as the E-6B Mercury airborne command post and CH-53E Super Stallion minesweeping helicopter. They even could act as an airborne drone mothership with the ability to provide high-altitude command-and-control for a host of smaller aircraft, as well as being a delivery vehicle for bringing the smaller craft into a region.
Ultimately, the modern undersea domain is a demanding theater of operations that nonetheless must be mastered by today’s Navy. As the Chief of Naval Operations’ NAVPLAN 2021 states, our objective as a force is “a larger, hybrid fleet of manned and unmanned platforms—"under, on, and above the sea.”25 A resurrection of the dirigible community will give our fleet the tactical flexibility and ASW advantage it needs for the future.
1. Roy A. Grossnick, United States Naval Aviation, 1910–1995 (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1997), 660.
2. Mark L. Evans and Roy A. Grossnick, United States Naval Aviation, 1910–2010 (Washington, DC: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2015), 23, 96, 153; Robert F. Dorr, “Blimp vs. U-boat,” Defense Media Network, 11 October 2017.
3. Elizabeth Correia, “DN-1: The US Navy’s First Airship,” Connecticut History.org, 6 February 2021; “First Dirigible for the U.S. Navy Will Be Constructed In New York,” The New York Sun, 16 May 1915.
4. “First Dirigible for the U.S. Navy Will Be Constructed in New York.”
5. James R. Shock, U.S. Navy Airships, 1915–1962 (Atlantis Productions, 2001), 21.
6. Shock, 25–50.
7. Richard K. Smith, The Airships Akron and Macon: Flying Aircraft Carriers of the United States Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2012).
8. “Airships & Dirigibles,” Naval History and Heritage Command; Shock, U.S. Navy Airships.
9. J. Gordon Vaeth, Blimps & U-Boats: U.S. Navy Airships in the Battle of the Atlantic (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1992).
10. Dorr, “Blimp vs. U-boat.”
11. “Why the Military Uses ‘Blimps,’” CNN, 30 October 2015.
12. “LEMV Airship Sold Back to Manufacturer for a Song, and Future Data, ” Defense Industry Daily, 24 October 2013.
13. A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (Washington, DC: Departments of the Navy and Coast Guard, 2007).
14. Gina Harkins, “Russian Submarine Activity Has Picked Up in Atlantic, Navy 3-Star Says,” Military.com, 5 February 2020.
15. James Gordon, “U.S. submarines scrambled to find deadly Russian sub off East Coast, ” Daily Mail, 6 February 2020.
16. “Russian Submarine Capabilities,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, 9 June 2014.
17. Naveed Jamali and Tom O’Conner, “China’s Submarine Fleet is Catching Up to the U.S., Causing Partners to Panic,” Newsweek, 29 October 2021.
18. Geoff Ziezulewicz, “The P-8A Poseidon’s Mission Readiness Rate Has Suffered in Recent Years. Here’s Why,” Navy Times, 11 June 2021.
19. David Axe, “U.S. Navy Submarines Are Expensive,” Forbes, 15 December 2020.
20. John G. Shannon, “A History of U.S. Navy Airborne and Shipboard Periscope Detection Radar Design and Development,” U.S. Navy Journal of Underwater Acoustics, 11 June 2012, 215; “Indian Navy P-8I Aircraft to be Equipped with CAE MAD System,” Naval Technology, 24 January 2011; Kelsey Reichmann, “Navy MH-60R Gets New Submarine Detection Sensor,” Defense Daily, 18 November 2020; and Raytheon.com, 2022.
21. Rupert Neate, “Airships for City Hops Could Cut Flying’s CO2 Emissions by 90%,” The Guardian, 26 May 2021.
22. “Defense Acquisitions Assessments of Selected Weapon Programs,” United States Government Accountability Office Report to Congressional Committees, March 2013, 109.
23. “Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV),” Army Technology, 13 August 2012.
24. Eric Hillner, “The Third Offset Strategy and the Army Modernization Priorities,” Center for Army Lessons Learned, May 2019.
25. ADM Mike Gilday, USN, CNO NAVPLAN, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 11 January 2021, 11.