A new generation of British-built airships may be bought by the Royal Navy to resupply ships, follwoing their use by the US Army on the front line in Afghanistan.
By Thomas Harding, Defence Correspondent
11:44AM GMT 13 Feb 2012
Modern-day Zeppelins will take to the sky for the first time since the First World War when the US Army begins using airships in Afghanistan.
But Navy chiefs are now giving serious consideration to purchasing an airship from the Bedfordshire-based Hybrid Air Vehicles to provide surveillance and re-supply runs to aircraft carriers, The Daily Telegraph can discose.
Scientists from the defence company Northrop Grumman have given briefings to the Navy on the latest airship that is about to enter military service.
The Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle is set to revolutionise air transport by being able to carry very heavy loads or intelligence kit long distances with the ability to land anywhere, including on the water.
The Navy is looking to buy an LEMV to base above the fleet with sophisticated surveillance cameras to spot threats and spy on enemy movements. With a 50 ton payload it can also be used to carry urgent equipment parts such as engines for Joint Strike Fighters out to ships.
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Commanders are also considering using it as a counter piracy vessel as the LEMV can lower up to 150 commandos along with their fast inflatable boats.
Travelling at over 80 knots the airship is almost three times faster than ships and the Navy’s version can travel for several days without refuelling its four gas turbine engines.
With a mixture of 60 per cent helium and 40 per cent air it is far less vulnerable to enemy fire than the hydrogen filled Zeppelins that fell prey to the Fleet Air Arm’s incendiary bullets during the Great War.
Tests by the Bedfordshire-based company Hybrid Air Vehicles have shown that bullets and even missiles can pass through the balloon without igniting the gas mixture which has a very low pressure.
“This could be the ideal solution for logistical support for aircraft carriers and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) for the Fleet,” said a Navy source.
“Carrying 50 tons of stores and supplies it is more than double the capacity of a Hercules.”
The airships will cost £60 million each and can be flown remotely as an unmanned drone.
They could prove a major boon for the struggling British aircraft industry if they attract commercial interest. Oil companies are looking at LEMVs to carry heavy equipment to remote drilling stations without having to use an airfield.
They could also open up a more leisurely route across the Atlantic carrying 200 passengers in safety and comfort in a 36 hour journey consuming a fifth of the fuel used by a jet.
The airships could even be used to transport good within Britain. The company estimates the two hour road journey from Milton Keynes to the heart of London could be cut to 20 minutes
HAV secured a US defence contract for £315 million in 2010 to provide three airships that will take station over Afghanistan able to remain airborne for three weeks while surveying the Taliban over a vast area.
A MoD spokesman said: “The MoD recently received briefings on the possible use of airships and specifically Hybrid Air Vehicles for the movement of equipment and stores but there are currently no plans to buy such equipment.”