HC Deb 06 March 2002 vol 381 cc321-2W
Ian Lucas

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what assessment his Department has made of the potential for airships to contribute to(a) airborne early warning, (b) large cargo carrying, (c) surveillance operations, (d) anti-submarine warfare, (e) landmine removal and (f) naval minesweeping. [39927]

Mr. Ingram

The Ministry of Defence is monitoring developments in airships and hybrid air vehicle (HAV) technology, as we do other novel concepts. Recent military airship trials and assessments, in the context of a specific surveillance capability requirement, together with commercial progress in this area gives us confidence that the technology is sufficiently mature to contribute to meeting future capability requirements.

Airships and HAVs have a number of generally common characteristics that need to be considered when assessing their suitability for particular roles. They are relatively cheap compared with manned winged or rotary aircraft; can loiter for sustained periods in suitable weather conditions; and are generally significantly larger and slower than other types of aircraft. Potentially, they could carry significantly more payload than a winged aircraft, although increases in lift capacity increase the overall size dramatically. Recent military trials and assessments have indicated that, while their size makes them relatively easy to visually identify and target, they are relatively difficult to target by other means, and difficult to destroy. Airships are generally expected to have less maintenance and infrastructure requirements than conventional air vehicles, and the challenges in manpower intensive ground handling have been largely overcome.

For airborne early warning, which is one type of surveillance operation, the potential to loiter for long periods could be a useful characteristic, although the high speed winds at the altitudes required for large-area coverage can limit this ability. The high visibility of airships limit their suitability for some surveillance roles.

For large cargo carrying, although slower than other aircraft types, the potential carrying capacity of future airships could be attractive, as demonstrated by the commercial interest in developing them in this field. However, we currently plan for the UK's future strategic and tactical airlift requirements to be met from 2010 by a combination of C130 Hercules and A400M aircraft, and have no current endorsed requirement for additional strategic lift.

For anti-submarine warfare, airships and HAVs could in future provide a potent platform for maritime patrol, through, for example, monitoring dispersed sonar buoys. However, we have no additional endorsed requirement for maritime patrol for some time, given the procurement of the Nimrod MRA4 aircraft.

Research has been conducted into the possibility of using airships for the detection of minefields. While this research is primarily intended for military use, the possibility of humanitarian mine-clearance has also been addressed. The ability to detect minefields from an airship remains a probability, but it is unlikely that such a system would be able to find all the individual mines, particularly anti-personnel mines, and a complementary land-based location and clearance system will still be needed.

If HAVs that could land on water and use organic sonars or deploy unmanned underwater vehicles could be developed, their low sonar signature and relatively high speed compared with ships could be expected to have advantages for other types of anti-submarine warfare and naval minesweeping and hunting. Concept work is considering what contribution airships or HAVs might make to the solution for the Future Surface Combatant capability requirements, when the current frigate classes leave service. It is likely that concept work for future minesweeping/hunting requirements will consider what contribution these technologies might offer.

Ian Lucas

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what the operational status is of the Skyship 6000 Airship ZH762; and what plans there are for further RAF trials with airships. [39926]

Mr. Ingram

Airship ZH762 was sold in 1998 following completion of trials for which it was purchased. There are currently no plans for any further RAF trials with airships.