Whether against Russia, China, or some other adversary in future conflicts, enemies of the United States will have the capability to inhibit the joint force’s access to its objectives through the employment of long-range sensor and weapon systems. Although means may vary, hypersonic missiles, advanced aircraft, electronic warfare, or cyber activity will not only hinder the advancement of fighting forces but will also challenge the projection of sustainment assets across vast oceans and along the last tactical mile. Sustaining fighting forces forward will require novel and creative approaches that take advantage of gaps in enemy capabilities. One of these approaches is the incorporation of high-altitude airships and balloons for push logistics. Although the suggestion of using airships and balloons to resupply ground forces may sound delightfully anachronistic at first, carrying capacities, altitudes, and ranges of modern craft can enable unorthodox schemes of sustainment, open previously unavailable lines of communication, and impose untenable dilemmas on the enemy.
While high-altitude platforms offer a wide range of carrying capacities, two experimental systems provide a historical perspective on the upper and lower limits of what is possible and serve as representative examples of the technology. On the large end, Lockheed Martin’s piloted P-791 Hybrid Airship demonstrated the capacity to lift 47,000 pounds (23.5 short tons) over a decade ago — roughly the carrying capacity of nine Light Medium Tactical Vehicles (LMTVs) or a C-130 Hercules cargo compartment. To put it slightly differently, ten P-791 airships could provide slightly more breakbulk general cargo capacity than an LMTV truck company and would not require developed road infrastructure. On the smaller end of the spectrum is Raven Aerostar’s HiSentinel remote-controlled balloon. As demonstrated in 2005, the HiSentinel could carry 60 pounds (about three boxes of meals ready to eat or 7.5 gallons of water) at an altitude of about 22.5 kilometers (km) (74,000 feet) for up to 90 days. Although much smaller in capacity than an airship, these balloons could contribute to emergency resupply or, if deployed en masse, significantly augment existing ground delivery methods.
When coupled with traditional ground transport, the unusual capacity and altitude specifications of airships and balloons create significant potential for unorthodox schemes of sustainment that take advantage of the limitations of enemy missiles, antiaircraft guns, and counter unmanned aerial system (cUAS) lasers. An imaginative planner could leverage these variables to the unit’s advantage. The HiSentinel’s operating altitude of 22.5 km, for example, uses a portion of airspace unavailable even to the U-2 spy plane with its reported maximum altitude of 21 km (70,000 feet). At this high altitude, the balloons would be out of range of all anti-aircraft guns and missiles. Among adversary weapons systems, the highly capable Russian SA-8 anti-aircraft missile leads in vertical range but still only reaches a maximum altitude of 12.2 km (about 40,000 feet). Even if a missile could reach a balloon, the effectiveness of acquisition radars against such a threat remains an open question. Thus, even in the face of robust enemy air defenses, it would be possible to pre-position a large number of HiSentinel systems loaded with supplies directly above the enemy (or even behind enemy lines in a kind of aerial envelopment) to allow rapid resupply — perhaps after seizing or securing an objective. At altitudes below about 10.5 km — when ascending, descending, or during adverse weather conditions — the balloons would be subject to antiaircraft guns, but even the Russian 1939 or Chinese Type 56 guns only have lateral ranges of about 16 km. Additionally, cUAS lasers typically claim ranges of several kilometers, and even though they could possibly be effective against balloons, these technologies are still maturing. In such a threatening environment, HiSentinels could land safely out of range and transfer their cargo to other vehicles.
Larger airships contribute to unorthodox schemes of sustainment in a different way — by opening previously unavailable lines of communication. Although data on the maximum altitude for the P-791 is not available, its large lifting body and heavy load capacity would likely prevent one from floating above enemy positions. A comparable system, the Airlander 10, has only about half of the P-791’s cargo capacity and boasts a maximum altitude of 20,000 feet (about 6 km), but this altitude is likely only achievable under minimal loading. However, landing characteristics and travel range partly make up for this altitude limitation among the larger airships. Importantly, large airships need relatively little room to land or takeoff — in the case of the P-791, only about 150 meters (500 feet). With a range of more than 2,500 km (1,400 nautical miles), about the air-travel distance from Guam to Tokyo or from Frankfurt to Cairo, a P-791 airship could open aerial lines of communication that would be impossible for fixed- or rotary-wing wing aircraft to replicate. At a cruising speed of 69 miles per hour (60 knots), the P-791 is slower than other aircraft types but still faster than truck transport and not dependent upon established road networks. When combined with more traditional resupply vehicles, the HiSentinel and the P-791 present unique opportunities for sustaining forward forces and presenting dilemmas to the enemy.
The characteristics of the P-791 and the HiSentinel shape unique logistics solutions for friendly force commanders to employ unorthodox schemes of sustainment and open previously unavailable lines of communication. On the opposite side of the battlefield, they also pose multiple, untenable dilemmas for the enemy. First, if equipped with air defense missiles, the enemy must ask: should we expend our limited and expensive inventory of missiles to attempt to shoot down transport airframes, revealing our positions, or should we save our missiles for more dangerous aircraft, allowing the enemy to receive supplies? A second related dilemma for the enemy is: should we risk observation of our anti-aircraft positions to try to shoot holes in airships and balloons to deny the enemy their supplies, or should we remain hidden and wait for helicopters or slower fixed-wing aircraft that may be of higher value? In either case, the enemy must choose between two unpleasant alternatives, each with its own cost. Through the imposition of this forced choice, the friendly scheme of sustainment directly contributes to the ability of the friendly force to achieve air superiority (either by depleting counter-air magazines and revealing anti-aircraft systems or by ensuring ground forces have the necessary supplies to advance against such threats) and has a direct bearing on friendly schemes of fires, protection, and maneuver.
Although the P-791 and the HiSentinel provide representative examples of airship and balloon capabilities for sustainment, they are not without limitations. Each P-791 airframe, for example, carried a price tag of $40 million, and the vehicle is not currently in production. The smaller Airlander 10, by contrast, costs $42 million, and according to Britain’s Hybrid Air Vehicle corporation, should be flying commercially by 2024. In either case, the cost availability of helium — often extracted from natural gas — presents its own supply chain challenges. In fiscal year 2020, U.S. government organizations paid $100 per thousand cubic feet of helium, which would mean $130,000 to fill Airlander’s 1.3 million cubic feet hull. As an alternative to helium, hydrogen produced through in-situ electrolysis could produce a cheaper gas supply from available electricity and water, but given its explosivity, hydrogen carries its own risks. These risks may be entirely acceptable, however, when transporting supplies. For simpler balloons like the HiSentinel, the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command has long had its eye on such capabilities to augment the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; communications; and positioning, navigation, and timing functions provided to ground forces by satellites. Plans for these satellite augmentation systems have not yet come to fruition. While such payloads could be highly valuable on the electromagnetically-contested battlefields of the future, they do not address a crucial aspect of the value of airships and balloons: their ability to transport supplies to and from austere locations.
The long-acknowledged challenges of sustaining ground forces in a large-scale combat environment require novel approaches. As an indirect approach to the resupply problem, incorporating airships and balloons into sustainment concepts requires a consideration of the capabilities available and how the Army might employ those capabilities. The airships of today have the potential to transform logistics and warfighting. Although more development is needed to incorporate airships and balloons into a viable military capability, these unique platforms promise much-needed capacity, unconventional access, inter-theater ranges, and the tactical flexibility to bring supplies forward to the point of need. Despite some of their associated challenges, the ability of airships to augment or replace traditional methods of transport and the dilemmas that such craft will place on the enemy makes them a natural choice for push logistics operations in anti-access/area denial environments. It is time to develop high-altitude airships to push logistics to ground forces.
Lt. Col. Jerry Drew currently serves as an instructor in the Department of Joint, Interagency, and Multinational operations at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He holds a Bachelor of Science in art, philosophy, and literature from the U.S. Military Academy and a Master of Science in astronautical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School. Drew is a 2017 Art of War Scholar and a 2018 graduate of the School of Advanced Military Studies.
This content is published online in conjunction with the Fall 22 issue of Army Sustainment.