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In my Fantasy/sci-fi universe there exists a lighter than air gas, that is non-flammable, while having density similar or even smaller than hydrogen (I will post some questions related to this gas in the future). This gas, combined with light and strong materials used in universe, permits making big airships that can lift big weight, but not making steampunk-looking flying battleships.

The airships carry a light armor on crew areas, ammo storages etc, but the whole envelope is not armored, but divided into many gasbags, like airships in real life were, so piercing a few of them won't bring the airship down. To clarify, these airships are rigid airships, not blimps.

Now, the question is: what weapons are best for airship to airship combat in such scenario?

I was thinking about simple thermobaric warheads for tearing apart envelope and gasbags, coupled with light cannons for precise strikes on ship's vital areas, like engines, armament etc. What do you think? Edit: Some notes on tech level: military tech is similar to what we had on Earth post-ww1 but planes are significantly less advanced than in our world, they are similar to planes that took part in the beginning fights of First World War, and are sometimes used as deck planes for airships. Material tech is more advanced, and makes it possible to build durable drigibles.

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    $\begingroup$ Weight matters: Remember that fuel and ammunition and armor are heavy. WWI Zeppelins used for bombing Britain carried shockingly tiny bombloads, despite short range and no armor, because that's all the weight they could carry. "Light armor on crew areas" will quickly eat up all your lift. $\endgroup$ – user535733 May 8 '18 at 12:34
  • $\begingroup$ @user535733 Of course, he DID say that the gas is possibly lighter than hydrogen, which means it could possibly be light enough that the ship can carry a moderately or even substantially larger load, thus allowing for the light armor. $\endgroup$ – Darth Vader May 8 '18 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ Can you clarify the technology level? The oldest thermobaric weapons are all of fifty years old, and they're anything but simple in design and construction, implying a more modern setting than some of the answers thus far seem to be interpreting. $\endgroup$ – Catgut May 8 '18 at 13:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Catgut I will write about tech level in a few hours time, for now I can say that it's a bit of mish-mash $\endgroup$ – Mranderson May 8 '18 at 14:10
  • $\begingroup$ Also, tbh, thermobaric or fuel-air warheads are not the hardest thing to make, we just invented them late. $\endgroup$ – Mranderson May 8 '18 at 17:24

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You want to hit as many gas bags as you can, so something that spreads out once fired would be better than a single shot.

Grapeshot would be like a cannon sized shotgun, making a large cloud of pellets. Like a shotgun, you have the disadvantage of having to be pretty close because each pellet doesn't weigh much and so will lose momentum and piercing power quicker than a large shell.

Flechettes are like small arrows, and can be bundled together to fire a lot all at once. This has some advantages over grapeshot in that they have more piercing power at a greater range due to their pointed tip and fletching to keep them straight. Being fired out of a cannon, you'd want to use heavier flechettes for increased range and accuracy.

Flak is another useful anti-aircraft weapon that could be used with good effect.
The main version uses a shell filled with high explosives and equipped with a fuse. The shell travels toward the target, then the fuse runs out which sets off the HE, and the shell explodes sending shrapnel in all directions.
A blimp mounted system might use shells with different length fuses, depending on the range of the target. If a flak cannon has an effective range of 1000 meters, you might want the shell to go off at 500 meters, and so a gunner would want to have an assortment of shells to chose from.
A skilled gunner might be able to get the shells to pierce the envelope, and then explode inside, which would cause a lot more damage.
You could use an impact fuse, so that it explodes an instant after impacting the envelope, if there was enough of an impact to actually trigger the shell.
Incendiaries could also be used to ignite the envelope fabric by filling a HE shell with phosphorus or other highly flammable substance. It wouldn't ignite the gas, but it could still burn the gas bags.

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    $\begingroup$ Suddenly I'm imagining a Flak gunner with only one fuse length, so they light the fuse separately from firing the projectile and "cook" it to detonate at the right distance. $\endgroup$ – Kamil Drakari May 8 '18 at 15:33
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    $\begingroup$ @KamilDrakari "Ok, I light this, and we have about 7 seconds to live. I need you to fire in 3." $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 May 8 '18 at 18:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark true, but machine gun bullets are not that big. A bullet 1cm wide is a big bullet. You could take one of those large gas bags and put a lot of 1cm holes in it and not make much difference. That's why I'm proposing an actual cannon with explosive shells designed to go off with a fuse and send a cloud of tearing jagged metal in all directions, or burning phosphorus, so that the bags are shreaded or ignighted. Bit of a difference. It might still take a few good hits, but for dramatic purposes you probably don't want a one hit kill. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 May 9 '18 at 3:32
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    $\begingroup$ A chain shot would be even more useful: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chain-shot $\endgroup$ – Revolver_Ocelot May 9 '18 at 8:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Revolver_Ocelot It could be pretty useful, but Ash already had that in their answer, and I didn't want to steal it. Also I wonder if you could build something like that into a flak shell; lots of sharp metal chunks with razor wire between them packed into a shell... Like a cross between chain shot and a cloud of angry bolos. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 May 9 '18 at 16:35
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Tactics

The most common weapon would be explosive or incendiary missiles - this would devastate your airship's armour and/or burn through it. These are the same missiles used today. These can be fired from any position, ground or air.

However if you don't have missiles, you mentioned cannons. Again, explosive shells seem the best bet to disable an airship - because of weight airships can't have much armour. Remember you don't need to completely destroy it, only break it up a little to reduce it's altitude or become uncontrollable.

This poses a few issues:

  1. Airships are quite slow moving and inherently fragile
  2. Cannons have limited range
  3. The higher you are the further your range.

Therefore, the first thing Airship captains will do is to increase altitude as much and fast as possible when in contact with an enemy target. If it is a battle between two airships, the highest airship wins.

Airship Design

Therefore airships have the best advantage the higher they are to begin with, meaning the less weight the better. That means less armour, as it doesn't really do much in a fight. Altitude wins the day and is your best defence (if there are no missiles...)

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    $\begingroup$ One issue with cannonballs, particularly explosive ones, is that they generally detonate on contact. In WWI, this caused them to be less effective against early airplanes; they would pass straight through the fabric and out the other side without going off. An un-armored airship would have a similar result; a cannonball would pass straight through, leaving only two holes (which would take at least an hour for enough gas to leak out of to force it to land.) $\endgroup$ – Skyler May 8 '18 at 16:49
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    $\begingroup$ Note that the square-cube law actually works in our favor for once because buoyancy is cubic and materials cost is (roughly) quadratic. So assuming a sufficiently resourceful owner, you should expect airships to be huge, like the Hindenburg was. Being huge, they will have internal compartments in the airbag, and may be a lot less fragile and a lot more buoyant than you're assuming. $\endgroup$ – Kevin May 9 '18 at 4:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Kevin exactly, if you look at American Akron for example, it had just a few extensions from its cigar shape, and crew compartments were inside the envelope outline $\endgroup$ – Mranderson May 9 '18 at 15:10
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Forced landing weapons.

  1. Autonomous grapnel anchors. These can be used for naval boarding operations which would be exciting in the air. In another use, after the grapnel engaged with the target the near side is fired into the ground and an automatic winch winches the captured airship down to where it is out of action - or the ground troops can get at it.

  2. Cold gun. This is the opposite of Greek fire, because burning things has been done so much and burns hurt. The cold gun would spray something very cold (maybe a supercooled gas, but maybe just cold salt water* for its high thermal mass). This would not damage the ship or personel but would cause the gas bags to shrink, decreasing lift. The ship would gradually fall out of the air, to be captured intact.

For either method, captured air sailors would be released after each one successfully sang the national anthem of the victor, and like he really meant it, and in tune. And with the dance moves.

*there might still be small fish and shrimp in this cold salt water.

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    $\begingroup$ Grappling hooks would be effective, but not for the reasons you describe. Odds are, the hook is going to snag the envelope fabric, and you can then pull on it to rip enormous holes in the airship. $\endgroup$ – Mark May 8 '18 at 22:46
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Solvent

putting enough holes in gas bags made with ballistics in mind might actually be really hard.

If you use something that can dissolve the cloth, it might penetrate much more effectively than ballistics.

It's the difference between shooting bubble wrap with an arrow, and spraying it with acetone.

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Firstly, there's already a lighter-than-air gas with similar lift properties to hydrogen. It's called helium. Despite the higher molar mass, it has virtually the same lift as hydrogen.

As for airships taking each other out, you're probably looking at timed explosive ammunition. Airship envelopes are so delicate, that they're—paradoxically—actually quite resistant to damage from impact explosives: they don't provide enough resistance to set off the charges and are likely to have an explosive or incendiary shell or bullet go right through and out the other side. Something with a timer on it, however, could wreak havoc if you get the timing right. A shell going off inside an airship's envelope would shred a lot of ballonets or gas cells and would at least force the damaged airship out of a fight. A crash would be unlikely, as they would probably still have enough lift to land safely.

TV Tropes actually has a useful notes page about airships that could be very...well...useful to you.

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  • $\begingroup$ It doesn't have quite the same lift as hydrogen. If the Hindenburg had been filled with helium instead of hydrogen, it would not have been able to get off the ground. Even empty, the weight of the envelope and gondola were too heavy for the amount of helium you could fit in that envelope to lift. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 May 8 '18 at 13:17
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    $\begingroup$ Helium has slightly less lift, which annoying but survivable, the problem is that it requires many pumps and compressing systems to not loose the rare helium. $\endgroup$ – Mranderson May 8 '18 at 17:33
  • $\begingroup$ @AndyD273 the Hindenburg was originally designed to use helium and only switched because helium wasn't available (US embargo) - the switch to hydrogen did allow them to add some additional stuff (like an on-board piano, IIRC), but the overall design 100% would have worked with helium. $\endgroup$ – Jeutnarg May 9 '18 at 14:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Jeutnarg Good info to know. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 May 9 '18 at 16:42
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For a slightly unconventional but low-tech weapon, try using birds of prey.

Hawks are quite trainable and have talons sharp enough to shred the outer fabric shell of the enemy airship (razor-edged claw caps can make them even more effective). A projectile weapon will - best case scenario - tear one hole on the way in and another on the way out. A trained hawk can continue to rip and tear into the enemy ship until you call them back. They aim themselves, so they can attack a moving enemy in any direction, aren't significantly affected by heavy crosswinds, and have an impressive range. They're capable of flight at airline cruising altitudes, and will be significantly more maneuverable than a bulky airship. They're reusable, but they will eventually tire so lengthy, large-scale battles will require some planning ahead.

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  • $\begingroup$ Well... Could work, but firstly, the tech is not THAT low and the bird could have hard time flying in a gas diferrent than air because it could not breathe $\endgroup$ – Mranderson May 8 '18 at 22:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Mranderson- They wouldn't fly into the air sacks of the airship. You'd train them with the scent/feeling/sound of the ballast gas escaping as their signal to move a bit down the ship and attack again. Escaping gas would quickly drift upwards and out of the way. Unless the gas was highly toxic, they wouldn't breathe in enough of it to affect them. $\endgroup$ – bta May 9 '18 at 0:02
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Anti aircraft weaponry is designed to produce large amounts of shrapnel to destroy control surfaces (degradation of structure and handling) and hopefully get pulled into the jet engine air intakes (degradation of propulsion)

Even if your airships have light armour, it will behave in a predictable way allowing weapons systems to be designed to counter it. If you look into the development of fighters post WW1 through to the end of WW2 their gun sizes and capabilities changed over time to bigger caliber rounds, and armour piecing capabilities because the targets were continually evolving - self healing fuel tanks, pilot armour, increased structural strength ...

What you need to imagine is what led up to the designs of your ships - if it is new technology they will have been designed around an existing older tech (hence we call these vehicles airships for example), or they will have been modified to resist the current weapon technology and function better (compare blimps - essentially a minor upgrade from hot air balloons to the hard bodied airships built by Count von Zeppellin for example), to at least over a 50/50 chance of not losing both crew and airship, or much higher if the owner/operators of the airships are not in a situation where the resources required to make them are in short supply

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Depending on tech-level:

  • Anti air missiles that use Shrapnel, such as Hawk or BUK. Shoot one into the vicinity of an airship and watch most of it´s gasbags turned into rags.
  • Cannons, loaded with grapeshot. Same principle, but you have to make a fly-by short distance for it to be effective.
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You'd definitely want some sort of chain shot grapeshot and the like would be great for making lots of holes, but chain shot would make large tears that would quickly allow the buoyant gas to escape.

I would expect combat to focus around getting above your opponent, as Flox describes. In addition to greater range, it would allow you to focus on the envelope of the enemy airship. If the weapons are only on the bottom, this would prevent lower airships from returning fire at all. Airships would evolve to be able to raise quickly, and have guns that can shoot downwards. They may also drop bombs on airships/ground targets below them.

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Gas Weapons

Something not yet mentioned is gas, a weapon very fitting for the period.

Getting poison gas into the enemy crew-cabin is game over. Even if gas masks are used, the massively reduced visibility is going to severely cripple enemy crew performance.

If the same gas is also corrosive then it could potentially damage very large surface areas of the enemy gas bag, and as it condenses it could even drip down to damage the internal gas bags. Treating the gas bags to resist this kind of attack would have a huge opportunity cost in terms of weight.

Finally, the gas would certainly be heavier than the gas used for lift. This means that any gas inside the enemy gas bag would displace a similar volume of vital lifting gas.

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Thermobarics will certainly have their uses but in the interests of not having to totally destroying every target, Chain-shot or something like a Rivebow that fires a cutting disc would be quite useful, you can aim at the fabric of the bag or the anchoring lines that attach it to the gondola with equal effect that way.

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    $\begingroup$ That might work against blimps, but against semi-rigid airships or zeppelins the gondola is an integral part of the envelope, so there's no real way to cut it off. $\endgroup$ – P.T. Curran May 8 '18 at 12:36
  • $\begingroup$ @P.T.Curran I'll give you that for modern craft but not in the old school of airship design. $\endgroup$ – Ash May 8 '18 at 13:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Ash in old school of airship design the gondola is often almost internal. And in my question the airships are rigid construction, with internal skeleton with triple keel construction, similarly to USS Akron pre-war airship $\endgroup$ – Mranderson May 8 '18 at 17:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Mranderson And nowhere does the question say anything of the sort, my answer stands anyway since either of those weapons is going to do limited but effective damage anyway, but you might want to put some of that clarity into the question. $\endgroup$ – Ash May 8 '18 at 17:57
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Fifty caliber Browning machine guns. If those don't do it you need to invent the Vulcan cannon, post-haste.

What's the thickness of the armor, it's composition, and what design strategy does it employ? Tell me what it is and I'll tell you what to shoot at it with. I only need to know one thing...


In reality you should be putting all of your resources towards advancing flight, because whoever learns first that airplanes are 1000x less fickle than airships (and has the necessary resources to build them) will win the war.

The US had the two coolest aircraft carrying airships ever built, but they both crashed due to weather and killed a bunch of people. TL;DR: build a weather machine.

If I were your adversary, my weapon would be deception. That being, I would appear to match your airship program tit-for-tat, plus a one-up, to make you keep dumping resources into your program.

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Incendiary Cannons

Essentially cannon shells filled with napalm. They'd have a small high-explosive charge to ignite and disperse the fuel, carefully delay-fused to explode inside the lifting cells. The goal isn't to set the gas alight, but to make it rapidly expand from the heat, bursting the lifting cells.

The shells would have to be quite large to carry enough fuel, and so would have limited range. The shorter flight-times at close range would also make it easier for the delay-fuses to be adjusted correctly (it would have to be done manually).

This means that our airships will first engage with intense, close-range broadsides. Eventually, one ship will lose critical lift and be forced to lower altitude. Once this happens, the higher airship can begin to back off, slipping out of the lower airship's range while continuing to fire on it from above.

Gravity bombs

Once the losing airship has been forced to the ground, it can be totally destroyed with conventional gravity bombs.

Flak Cannons

These are useful for degrading the firing capabilities of the enemy airship. As pointed out by others, they're not effective against the lifting cells, but they can be targeted at the gondola, where they can sever control lines, injure personnel, and destroy weapons and ammunition.

Sniper Cannons

This is something we don't really have an equivalent for in Earth-tech. Without the speed and maneuverability of heavier-than-air craft, we can expect extended aerial pursuits between airships, as one seeks to avoid or delay engaging the other at close range. These would look a lot like chases between old sailing ships, except that stability and altitude give the two vessels clear lines of sight to each other at all times.

This opens up an opportunity for long-range, high-accuracy weaponry. Imagine something like a sniper rifle, but even higher caliber and velocity. Pivot-mounted to the deck, featuring an extremely long, rifled barrel, and relatively lightweight ammunition. Operated by a single, highly-trained crew-member, it would be fired at the propulsion engines of the enemy craft. Even a relatively small hole in the right spot could significantly slow an airship until repairs could be made, allowing the fleeing party to escape, or the pursuing party to catch its prey.

Guided torpedoes

A moderate range, heavier than air torpedo, featuring wings and a massive high-explosive payload could potentially destroy an airship with a single direct hit.

In order to be practical, such a heavy and expensive weapon would need the most effective guidance system available to an interwar society: a human pilot willing to die for the cause. Desperate, but effective.

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Flak cannon with a timed burst. Shred the internal gas chambers.

Note that precision timed airbursts were a solved problem by World War One; shells could be set to detonate in the air above the target, on impact, or after impact, and that was due to timed fusing (proximity fuses only came around in World War Two). Firing at a (slowly) moving target from a (slowly) moving platform is more difficult than ground artillery firing at a fixed position, but again that's a largely solved problem because navies had been working on firing at moving targets from moving guns for a while.

The third dimensional aspect (the target could be above or below your own altitude) adds a little more complication, but not much; snipers deal with that issue all the time. All it would require is slightly more math, and once you have the range it wouldn't take many hits to force an airship down.

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  • $\begingroup$ An airship can fly just fine with lots of little holes in the gas chambers -- just ask the British about their efforts at shooting down zeppelins during World War I. If you're trying to take down an airship by eliminating its lift, you want great gaping tears in the envelope. $\endgroup$ – Mark May 8 '18 at 22:41
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Lasers

I’m going to (semi-)humorously suggest that lasers would be an awesome way to create holes in other airships.

This is a low weight, long distance, perfectly accurate system that is dependent solely upon the amount of energy you have available to burn and the tech level available. Sadly, it wouldn’t work during storms, but do you really want to be in an airship during one of those anyway?

This would also inspire some interesting airship design - likely with reflective/white balloons.

enter image description here

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  • $\begingroup$ Wrong technology level. The question calls for interwar-period tech; lasers date from about 30 years later. They're also probably even less effective against an airship than bullets are. $\endgroup$ – Mark May 8 '18 at 22:42

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