Some years ago, I commanded Red in a Marine Corps war game at Quantico. When I was asked what weapon systems I wanted, I requested Zeppelins, on the grounds that it is impossible to wage modern war without airships. The CHinese just showed us why.
Like many other airship enthusiasts, I’ve always known these pesky heavier-than-air machines would have their day in the sun and then, like all Mayflies, expire. They take enormous amounts of power merely to remain in the air, while airships fly with no power at all. They expend energy to move, not to fly. Their helium or hydrogen (Zeppelins filled with hydrogen were in fact very safe; even on the Hindenburg two-thirds of the passengers survived, and that was the only time a German passenger-carrying Zeppelin caught fire) can be used over and over. In terms of air pollution, they emit a small fraction of what a heavier-than-air machine produces. And they are economical; a pound of lift lighter-than-air costs one-tenth as much as a pound of lift from a heavier-than-air machine.
As the Chinese steerable balloon demonstrated, airships have inherent stealth characteristics; at least three other such balloons traversed the United States without our air defenses detecting them. They have long loiter time, which makes Zeppelins ideal for anti-submarine work. And if the engines quit, an airship does not crash. Flying in an airplane is like taking a train where, if the engine fails, they come through and shoot all the passengers.
The quiet flight of our Chinese interloper makes another, broader point: high-tech systems often have effective, cheap, low-tech counters. Had the Chinese built something like the B-70 and flown it over America, we would have tracked it immediately. The balloon came in over the radar. In the war with Serbia over Kosovo, the Serbs deflected our home-on-radar missiles aimed at their air defenses by modifying microwave ovens and pointing the skyward. Recently, some Marines told me the Corps needs a new Light Armored Vehicle (LAV) because ISIS is dropping 40mm anti-vehicle bombs from drones. Drawing on the “skirts” German tanks had in late World War ll to defend against bazookas, I said “Put an awning up over it; chicken wire should work just fine.” All we need to do is set off the fuse before the grenade hits the vehicle.
My favorite low-tech beats hi-tech story comes from an exercise in the Mediterranean in the 1960s that pitted the U.S. Navy against the U.S. Air Force and the Spanish air force. A report, which proved inaccurate, said the Air Force had spotted the Navy’s aircraft carrier, so our Air Force sent everything it had to attack it. Too late, an accurate report came in; our Air Force has nothing left. So we turned to the Spanish, who sent out a Ju-52 as a bomber. Now the Ju-52 was a fine, tri-motored German World War ll transport. But it had already become obsolete as a bomber before World War ll began. Yet the bomber got the carrier, flying the whole length of the flight deck dropping flour bags to simulate bombs. How did it get through the carrier’s air defenses? A Ju-52s speed is about 60 mph, so our automated radar systems discounted it as a false target!
When we fight small states or 4th Generation, non-state forces, those enemies will know they cannot defeat us with vastly expensive hi-tech systems of their own. But poverty stimulates creativity and imagination. We will frequently find ourselves getting surprised by low-tech approaches that effectively counter our hi-tech systems. Were we prudent, we would have a “skunk works” trying to identify such low-tech approaches before they block us. That won’t happen, because it might endanger the money-flow to the hi-tech stuff if word got out that it is easy and cheap to counter. So we will end up wasting not only money but lives.
Meanwhile, I’ll offer a challenge: an F-22, which shot down the Chinese balloon (making itself the most expensive anti-balloon gun in history), against an L 30 class Zeppelin of the Imperial German Navy. Our Zeppelin’s mission is to bombard an American coastal city with bratwursts and Bienenstuck; the f-22’s job is to stop us. No air-to-air refueling is permitted. Our Zeppelin’s crew may regularly remind the f-22’s pilot that we are eating very, very well. See you over, well, someplace, flyboy, in your jet propelled bathtub. We’ll be floating along the breeze.