In 1968, the intelligence-collection ship USS Pueblo (AGER-2) was forced to surrender to North Korea, which claimed the ship was operating in its territorial waters. The result was the loss of the ship, the death of one U.S. sailor, and the compromise of hundreds of classified documents and sensitive equipment. Soon thereafter, the U.S. Navy’s offshore intelligence-collection mission was distributed to other platforms, and “spy” ships were removed from service.1 Russia and China, however, continued developing spy ships. In 2015, Russia commissioned the Yury Ivanov, the first in its newest class of large reconnaissance ships.2 And China added its latest hull to the Dongdiao-class auxiliaries general intelligence (AGI) ship in 2017.3 China and Russia have continued developing these vessels to meet an increasing demand for information in a world where exploiting the electromagnetic spectrum is more critical than ever in warfare.4
To meet its high demand for intelligence, the U.S. Navy relies primarily on satellites, surface combatants, aircraft, and submarines. Unfortunately, these platforms all have other missions and taskings that limit their ability to focus exclusively on Navy intelligence priorities. Thus, in this information warfare age, the Navy needs a new long-dwell platform devoted solely to intelligence collection, electronic warfare, and information warfare.
The New Environment of Information Warfare
An information warfare platform with a full suite of capabilities that can maintain a persistent presence in the operating area will give commanders far more tactical and operational effects across a wide spectrum. In addition to a spy ship’s traditional signals intelligence mission, a dedicated information warfare platform will enable operational commanders to better disrupt the enemy’s decision-making calculus by coordinating electronic warfare attacks, cyber attacks, and communications disruptions. To be most effective, these platforms need to be minimally manned (not unmanned), yet affordable enough to be optimized only for intelligence collection and information operations.
Contemporary intelligence collection benefits from greatly improved technology, but it also is faced with new challenges. Satellite systems are being designed to provide spot-beam coverage, as opposed to wide-area. At the same time, adversary communications and fire-control systems are more sophisticated, making their signals less diffuse and harder to exploit.5 This argues for a collection solution closer to the area of interest. Building a new class of intelligence collection ships is one solution, but an exorbitantly expensive one that is infeasible when considering higher Navy shipbuilding priorities. What is affordable, however, is the hybrid airship outfitted as an information warfare vessel, capable of a wide range of signals intelligence collection and electronic warfare and cyber operations.
The Hybrid Airship
Airships date to the early 20th century. In more than 100 years, this technology has advanced significantly, and recently all the military services have shown a renewed interest in it, although no service has yet advanced a program to production. The Air Force’s Blue Devil II airship was abandoned in 2012 after a nearly $280 million investment, the Army’s Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) was canceled in 2013 after an investment exceeding $154 million, and the Navy’s MZ-3 blimp was canceled in 2014.6 All programs experienced cost overruns and unforeseen technical challenges.
The enduring challenges in fielding airships include their perceived vulnerability to antiair weapons, sensitivity to adverse weather, large size, and slow speed. However, new versions of hybrid airships mitigate all these concerns. Today’s vehicle combines traditional balloon/blimp technology with the heavier-than-air technology of conventional aircraft.7 An innovative air-cushion landing system enables them to land in any flat area, including water, without the need for traditional towers or a large number of mooring personnel. Hybrid airships typically are filled with the inert gas helium instead of the very flammable gas hydrogen used in the Hindenburg. They also operate at a small pressure differential with the outside atmosphere; thus holes in the envelope will result in a very slow leak rate.8 Finally, regarding their vulnerability to antiair weapons, the RAND Corporation in 2007 concluded: “Thousands of rounds of small arms or anti-aircraft artillery are required to down an HA [hybrid airship]. Even strikes from man-portable air defense systems might only disable an HA to the point where it would make a forced landing within four hours.”9
Past failures and lack of military funding did not dissuade some companies from continuing to invest in this technology. After 20 years of research and development, they are ready to unveil their hybrid airships for commercial sale. Lockheed Martin is expected to launch the LMH1 soon. At a cost of approximately $40 million, the LMH1 carries up to 21 crew and 20 tons of cargo. It has a range of 1,400 nautical miles at 60 knots (at lower speeds it can circumnavigate the globe on one tank of gas).10 The British company HAV is ready to deploy its own version, called the Airlander 10, which builds on the U.S. Army’s LMEV. HAV claims this $40 million airship will be able to remain airborne for five days carrying a 10-ton payload at an 80-knot cruising speed.11
Hybrid airships can provide persistent surveillance, communications, and electromagnetic spectrum exploitation in three zones:
- Tactical support zone: Inside the area of influence of ships, submarines, and aircraft, HAs support tactical cyber operations (wireless/Wi-Fi exploitation) and electronic warfare. They provide an alternate position, navigation, and timing capability and communication relay in a space-denied environment.
- Operational support zone: Here HAs can insert cyber fires and deception, jam radio frequencies, and support military information operations.
- Strategic support zone: HAs can collect signals, communications, and electronic intelligence.
These airships can be deployed worldwide to support combatant commanders. In addition to performing an array of information warfare missions, they can provide intratheater logistics support, especially in harsh environments such as Alaska, and can serve as surrogate satellites in a space-denied environment.
|Type||Cost (millions per unit)||Endurance||Speed|
|UAV—Global Hawk||$222||~33 hours||390 mph|
|Coast Guard offshore patrol craft||$484||~60 days||14 kts|
|Joint High Speed Vessel||$214||1200nm||~40 kts|
|Commercial hybrid airship||$40 (+ sensor payload)||~5 days||60–80 mph|
Comparing the Cost
It is difficult to precisely compare the cost of hybrid airships with alternatives such as long-endurance unmanned vessels. However, a rough comparison shows whether HAs are worth the investment. Table 1 compares the hybrid airship with a long-endurance, unmanned intelligence-collection vehicle (Global Hawk); a proposed medium-endurance Coast Guard cutter; and a faster, more affordable surface solution, the Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV).12
This comparison makes clear that hybrid airships are a cost-effective solution with the endurance to provide persistent presence. Furthermore, unlike unmanned options that can be vulnerable in a communications-denied environment, HAs manned by information warfare professionals offer more resiliency and flexibility.
Hybrid airships can provide the Navy with a relatively low-cost, survivable information warfare platform. While initial procurement of a full fleet may not be fiscally realistic, the Navy initially could lease a small number in the same way it leased HSV-1 and HSV-2 before it committed to full JHSV production. The leasing phase would allow the Navy to overcome additional challenges to the design. Just as with HSVs, hybrid airships are a nondevelopmental acquisition (at least for the Navy) and commercially based. Leasing a commercially owned hybrid airship to prove the concept of employment before funding the acquisition of a ten-ship fleet makes sense, as does operating the leased airship in a benign environment such as the Caribbean while supporting counternarcotics operations. Through this approach, the Navy can—for the first time since the 1960s—deploy platforms exclusively for information warfare and intelligence collection at a time when both missions are increasingly critical.
1. Norman Polmar, “U.S. Navy: American Spy Ships,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 129, no. 10 (October 2003), 117–18.
2. “Project-18280: Yury Ivanov Large Reconnaissance Ship,” GlobalSecurity.org, www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/russia/18280.htm.
3. Matthew M. Aid, “China Continues to Build a New Generation of Spy Ships,” 18 February 2017, Tumblr blog post, www.matthewaid.com/post/157394518576/china-continues-to-build-a-new-generation-of-spy.
4. Desmond Ball, “Intelligence Collection Operations and EEZs: The Implications of New Technology,” Marine Policy 28, no. 1 (January 2004): 67–82.
5. Ball, “Intelligence Collection Operations and EEZs.”
6. Richard Dudley, “U.S. Air Force Deflates the Blue Devil II Airship,” Defense Update, 29 May 2012; David Szondi, “U.S. Army Cancels LEMV Airship Project,” New Atlas, 15 February 2013; Dan Grossman, “Breaking News: U.S. Navy Airship Program Canceled; MZ-3A Blimp Grounded,” AirShips.net, 8 December 2014.
7. See Hybrid Air Vehicle’s website: www.hybridairvehicles.com/aircraft/airlander-10.
8. Phillip W. Lynch, “Hybrid Airships: Intratheater Operations Cost-Benefit Analysis,” Defense Technical Information Center, November 2008.
9. Lynch, “Hybrid Airships: Intratheater Operations Cost-Benefit Analysis.”
10. Jane Wells, “This Airship Transports Lockheed into New Territory,” CNBC Markets, 10 March 2016; Ellie Zolfagharifard and Hugo Gye, “Lockheed’s Airship Gets the Green Light; FAA Approves Massive Hybrid Vehicle that Could Launch in 2018,” DailyMail.com, 23 February 2017.
11. Vlad Savov, “Airlander 10: Up Close with the Gigantic Airship the U.S. Army Wanted,” The Verge, 8 July 2014, www.theverge.com/2014/7/8/5880061/airlander-10-photo-essay.
12. U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Defense Acquisitions: Assessments of Selected Weapon Programs,” March 2013, www.gao.gov/assets/660/653379.pdf; Graham Warwick, “Cost Overruns Put Global Hawk at Risk,” Flight International, 8 March 2016; Scott C. Truver, “Don’t Short the Coast Guard’s New Cutter,” USNI News, 18 March 2013; See Airlander 10 technical data at www.hybridairvehicles.com/downloads/Airlander-21.pdf. I estimate a sensor payload of $30–$40 million per unit.