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So I am writing a story with 21st century airships. They replace all heavier than air flight and there are extensive “sky navies”. The airships are able to carry 150,000 pounds of whatever you want after the engines, fuel and gondola. Half of this is used for armor for the envelope and the rest can be used for weapons systems. With only 75,000 pounds to accommodate weapons what kind of weapons should be used? This takes place in a world where everything is the same as now but with no aircraft. The battles will take place against similar numbers of airships with roughly the same armament. Some ideas for you:

  • Miniguns or Vulcan cannons. Fast rate of fire, good for close up engagements and boardings.
  • Air to air missiles. Like the ones on fighter jets today. Good for long/medium range.
  • Cannons. Naval guns attached to the ship. Probably really good but very heavy.
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  • $\begingroup$ I can't picture a world where there are guided missiles and armed forces are still using airships - except maybe for transport, and only in your own territory. If you can have rockets and missiles, you would use them to fly. If, for any reason, they can't make engines, propellers or turbines, then there's this: es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messerschmitt_Me_163. $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    Jan 19 at 16:01
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    $\begingroup$ So you have an airship with 68 tonnes payload lift. That's a biggg airship. Those 34 tonnes of armor will consist most likely of tinfoil, able to stop pistol bullets but not much else. (And, for fun: remember that airships are aerostats. Whenever you fire a gun, or lauch a missile, or drop a bomb, the airship will jump upwards!) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 19 at 16:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Rekesoft actually I would imagine that if airship technology had been continuously developed from WW2 then Airships would be able to fulfill various roles. Airships are ridiculously durable compared to aircraft (unless ofcourse you coat its outer layers with trace rocketfuel like the Hindenburg) and can carry much heavier loads. If you use ridgid/semi-ridgid airships you can hide the control area's and equipment in the envelope and make it harder to destroy it. I would think that they would be excellent early-warning radars at the least, perhaps also AA missile platforms. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Jan 19 at 17:03
  • $\begingroup$ @11Bravo do we have to assume the following: 1: there is a good but inconsequential reason for aircraft to be obsolete. 2: are we talking true 21rst century weapons and range or more of a WW2 naval combat with airships? Edit the question to clarify please. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Jan 19 at 17:21
  • $\begingroup$ It is customary to wait 24 hours before accepting an answer, this gives people from all over the world a chance to formulate an answer. Someone might have a better answer than me, but is discouraged because you've already accepted it! $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Jan 20 at 8:08
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First I'm going to assume there is a good reason why Airships have become dominant, a reason that is not relevant to the airships.

Airship resiliance:

People tend to think of Airships as slow and made of explodium. Yet Airships are actually incredibly resiliant and hard to spot on Radar. The envelope lets most radar beams through or absorbs it and there's very little heat except at the engines, which are relatively low-power compared to any modern aircraft. On top of that things like missiles, rockets and shells will simply pass through the envelope and not detonate. The gas inside is not pressurised so it won't instantly escape the envelope but use slow diffusion, and hydrogen (if helium isn't used) needs a certain mixture of oxygen and hydrogen before it can ignite. In WW1 entire drums of incendiary ammunition could be spend without causing a fire, because enough gas had to leak out and mix with the air before a fire could be started.

Modern techniques can increase safety. For example by surrounding hydrogen gas cells with helium gas cells to have a barrier that reduces the chance of a fire, on top of compartimentalizing which area's catch fire. Compartimentalizing into different cells is also immensely useful. With WWI (!) era technology they had build airships that could lose more than 25% of their gas and still limp back home. Even when the vulnerable Gondola's were shot off some managed to land (1).

Airship speed and size:

Most people think airships are slow, if only because most movies show them slowly moving around. Yet airships build with WWI and WWII technologies could reach speeds of up to 130km/h. Modern prototypes like the Airlander (2) can go up to 150km/h. For an aircraft that is slow, for an aerial vehicle larger than the Hindenburg and reaching the size of the largest modern aircraft carriers that is incredibly fast. The capacity of the Hindenburg was 46.000 pounds (9,5 tons) of cargo, a quarter of the capacity that your airship has left meaning the size of your airships have to be incredibly huge. Although modern materials and design would save a lot of weight, as proven by the Airlander which can carry 10 tons at 1/3rd of the length of the Hindenburg. Caveat there is that the airlander is designed as a modern cargoship, rather than combat vehicle.

Airship design:

The typical idea of an airship people have is a giant balloon with a vulnerable Gondola below. Those are non-ridgid airships (blimps), and are just one type of airship. These use the gas cells to keep their shape and require a separate compartment for the Gondola. However ridgid airships (the Zeppelin) and semi-ridgids can build the gas cells in almost any configuration and shape imagineable. The hindenburg for example had most of it's walkways and maintenance inside the envelope of the airship with gas-cells surrounding those. Design wise ridgid and semi-ridgid airships can be build in many more shapes, such as a wing-design that allows airships to fly using lift from the wing, meaning there is no need for enough gas to keep the airship airborne and let it float down if speed is lost.

Armor:

One of the key features of Airships is that they don't go down with a single hit. Rather than make it easier for rockets, missiles and shells to explode upon contact I would focus the armor on limiting shrapnel damage. The cells would be compartimentalized between things like Kevlar fabric or equivalents to catch fragment and reduce tearing, but not enough kevlar to snag shells and missiles causing them to explode. Vital area's would be protected by hiding them inside the envelope and creating titanium tubs around them, similar to how planes like the A10 have a titanium tub around the cockpit. The logical step would be to place these types of armor in places where an explosion will move through the least amount of cells should it hit.

Other protections would include trying to make it hard to judge exactly where the envelope begins and ends in the hopes of making modern missiles explode prematurely, too late or above/below the actual airship. Airships are relatively cheap and would be unlikely to go down by a single modern anti-air missile, which can cost anywhere from 100.000 to several million, with a higher chance of detection and a low potential of being shot down prematurely due to CIWS mounted on the airship (if not Block type missiles). To down airships it is likely that new types of missile will be developed to be cheaper when trying to down an airship.

You could even consider airships that are simply designed to attract enemy fire. They carry minimal weaponry and are as cheap as possible, they are made to look like their more dangerous brethren and focus on staying in one piece while taking hits, eventually just landing the ship or bailing using alternative means.

Weapons:

Unless you use a Blimp design your ship will have an internal structure for strength that holds much of the gas cells together. This internal structure can at minimum handle anything modern aircraft can as it has less restrictions on weight. This means that it could carry and fire at least a 105mm Howitzer like the AC-130 Gunship, as long as the recoil is transferred directly to the internal support structure of the ship.

Combat techniques in Airship vs Airship combat:

There are 3 options in this type of combat:

  1. Destroy the internal frame, causing the airship to destabilize and crash.
  2. Destroy enough vital components like the bridge(s). Airships are resilliant by having many redundancies so having multiple vital parts to stay airborne is likely.
  3. Destroy enough gas cells to cause the airship to crash. Although it's likely the airship would descent first and need more gas cells broken before an actual crash occurs.

Large shells like a 105 gun could be used to punch through armor and destroy vital parts, however the (relatively) limited range would be an issue. Similarly smaller shells like a 30 to 40mm auto-canon could be used to increase the amount of gas-cells that are punctured. Most of these auto-canons when used for AA duty will detonate when they reach the target's range, spraying shrapnel to maximise hit-chances and destruction of an aircraft. This would likely also be used to maximise gas cell destruction.

Rockets could extend the range, but with long-range combat you need to properly detect the opposing airship, which apparently isn't as easy as with regular aircraft. It could be useful for stand-off attacks but without a proper range most of these rockets, if they even hit, would simply pass through the envelope and deal relatively minor damage compared to the size of the entire airship.

Missiles would be best for long-range combat, using similar properties as the shells by detonating and launching schrapnel into the aircraft to maximise hit chances and downing the aircraft. The question is what you choose to use. High-velocity missiles with optical sensors are likely a guaranteed hit if you have an approximate location of your target, but they are very expensive and you will likely need a lot of them to actually down a single one. Using cheaper radar or heat seaking technologies might not be good enough to detect and detonate properly. You could focus your story on the ECM side, where airships have so much spoofing and decoys to make downing them with missiles hard and force combat at much closer ranges with other weapons if you want that WW2 naval combat idea that we've already seen in space opera's.

(1): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeppelin_LZ_39

(2): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hybrid_Air_Vehicles_Airlander_10

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    $\begingroup$ The en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continuous-rod_warhead used on some air-to-air missiles is specifically designed to cut long gashes into an aircraft to hit vital systems and would work equally well to slash apart a broad swath of gas cells on an airship. $\endgroup$ Jan 20 at 0:13
  • $\begingroup$ Just a correction: "needs a certain mixture of oxygen and helium before it can ignite" - helium doesn't ignite, with or without oxygen. $\endgroup$
    – Stilez
    Jan 20 at 6:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Stilez thanks I always mix the two up. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Jan 20 at 7:59
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    $\begingroup$ @GrumpyYoungMan yes just about any modern AA missile (or shell) will air-burst and launch shrapnel into the path of the aircraft. I'll add that to the missiles. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Jan 20 at 8:04
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    $\begingroup$ ack-ack rounds were tuned to explode at a certain altitude regardless of contact, you'd still be vulnerable to that. If you were using hydrogen airships I'd counter with amunition that carried it's own oxidiser, or even just compressed oxygen cylinders as a payload, make the right mix for a fire and displace the hydrogen to kill your lift. We have a lot more options now than in WWI. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Jan 20 at 8:16
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You need a good "excuse" to make airships viable, not just cause I say so, or logic goes out of the window. A shortage of hydrocarbon fuels, coupled with easy availability of solar-cracked hydrogen?

  • 37.5 tons are insufficient to give meaningful armor over the envelope of a rigid airship. Better put them into payload as well. Or armor just the gondola, with many little cells for the lifting gas.
  • Big naval guns are dead because of recoil. They will shake any reasonable airship apart.
  • Airships are big, slow targets, so long-range weapons are a good idea. That means missiles would win.
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Slow paced war in an obstacle course:

You probably need a question asking how to justify your assumptions. You might have different tech, but NOT linear 21st century tech. I think you need to completely lose aerodynamics and jet propulsion to justify your scenario with conventional skies, or have some kind of atmospheric issue that makes high velocity a problem. So my answers assume a thick, blinding atmosphere filled with slow-moving flight hazards.

Super-thick perpetual cloud cover might go part-way towards solving the issue. Once radar is invented, the effects of cloud cover would be diminished. Swarmed aerial lighter-than-air life (Flying jellyfish? Tiny hydrogen-generating plants that float above/within the thick clouds?) might make it hazardous to fly any aircraft at a high speed, and would likely interfere with long-ranged weapons as well. Your airships might need some kind of armoring or non-stick coating to fly through the skies filled with jellyfish. propellers would need to account for the risks of sucking in the abundant debris.

This would allow rockets, but greatly diminish the effectiveness of guided missiles. Recoilless rifles replace conventional cannons. Long range is out, and your ground forces will be left with flack from radar-guided cannons to shoot your airships (if they can see through your air). Even then, radar would need to deal with a complex and shifting mess of aerial goop to target airships, especially if some folks could build "stealth" airships that could mimic the properties of jelly swarms or the like. Surprise would be a key issue.

Some of the next stuff is covered in other questions here, but not all, and it won't make a lot of sense in pieces. Given a "thick" sky, small "fighter" ships covered in weapons with light armor could be sent to attack enemy vessels, barraging with rockets. These would go relatively fast, and I would advise rocket power rather than jets for extra thrust and high-speed maneuvers since sucking debris into a jet engine is very dangerous. If sufficient supplies for the pilots are available, "fighter" ships and squadrons could wait for a considerable time, loitering.

Aerial Mines, especially stealthy ones, would be a real threat. They could be even dumped into the prevailing winds and activate as homing drones when an enemy airship comes within identification range. Given buoyant mines, they could persist in the skies and be a serious concern to navigation and civilian airships. UAV's with rockets/short-ranged missiles ( a bit like torpedoes) could be launched at enemy positions and barrage ships in a similar manner to the mines or fighters.

Given comparatively fragile airships, the best warheads will be large and concussive to blow apart ships. Guns will likely be recoilless cannons, but machine guns that are used will include extensive tracer fire if ship gasses are explosive, but flammable native life provides a huge variable in this equation. Munitions that burst into masses of shrapnel can rip and shred ships and personnel alike. I might suggest the development of a gyrojet machine gun for various applications, as these weapons also minimize recoil.

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Bombs.

Bombs blow stuff up good. You have big slow heavy blowuppable airships. They are full of crew, crews quarters, galley with food and staff, game room (with foosball; 2 tables), jacuzzi etc.

You deploy speedy little airships. They have bombs. Maybe several, or one big one. Maybe they automatically ascend to a certain height and place then drop the bomb down on the enemy ship. Or maybe there is a guy riding in the little ship who drops the bomb then comes home.

But what if your target goes very high to escape? There are underbombs that ascend from below for the blowing up. These are easier because there is no guy riding in them (get out of the underbomb, you! No guys are riding in them!), just a balloon and a bomb. You let it go and it floats up and goes boom. See, you didn't want to ride in there. You owe me a Coke.

Nay, you protest. Nay! I forgot the tell you but in my world the rules of war state all airships must fly at the same height! Then you have little drone airships that fly their bombs into your enemy. Or they sit and wait, maintaining position like mines.

Yes, bombs are the best for blowing things up. And there is much creative airship bombwork to enliven your fictional world.

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    $\begingroup$ "Speedy little airships": I don't believe that "airships" and "speedy" go together. Airships are the very example of big, slow moving, fragile targets. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 19 at 16:55
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP even WW2 technology allowed airships to be build that went up to 128km/h. The Akron aerial aircraft carrier for example. A 21rst century variant could still have a high speed. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Jan 19 at 17:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Demigan: 128 km/h is slow. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 19 at 17:29
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP - 128 km/h is fast enough to catch the Goodyear blimp. Which is the standard for which all such craft should strive. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jan 19 at 17:30
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While much information has been provided around the often surprising resilience of airships in combat and I will not repeat Demigan's answer, one particular option seems to have been overlooked by everyone, it's not about the weapon, it's about the ammunition.

Compressed gas.

Delivery mechanism at your discretion, but the resilience of the airship is based on the lack of structure to interact with. They are however based on holding the right amount of the right gas in a bag. If you add the wrong sort of gas to the bag it no longer flies. If you add too much gas to the bag it bursts, even if it can hold the overpressure then it no longer flies. Venting gas because you're falling out of the sky isn't the reflex of any zeppelin pilot.

Dry ice.

In much the same vein as compressed gas, if you get enough dry ice into the gas bag it's going to start filling it with carbon dioxide. No fires perhaps, but also no lift.

Chain shot.

Zeppelins are more like sailing ships than anything we'd now consider in the realms of aircraft. Lots of ropes and lines but nothing much to actually hit. Chain shot is a speciality for those who want to clear rigging. It'll also do nicely for messing up a zeppelin.

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  • $\begingroup$ Wouldnt dry ice simply add a certain amount of weight? Also wouldnt you burst just one gas cell, assuming the overpressure doesnt just go out the same hole the dry ice came in? I would think that an explosion would add more overpressure in a quick moment than dry ice, unless dry ice does something even more ludicrous? Wouldnt a part of the "armor" of an airship be making sure that you split a gas bag in a lot of smaller gas-cells? Wouldnt a counter-measure against such missiles be firing a large sheet of cloth so the missile passes through and detonates prematurely? $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Jan 20 at 19:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Demigan messing around with the gas bags is somewhat subtle in the grand scheme of things. What I'm trying to do is bring the thing down intact in the model of the old sailing ships taking a prize rather than destroying a target. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Jan 20 at 19:18
  • $\begingroup$ then dry ice seems an extremely elegant solution. The hydrogen/helium gas is stored at 1 atmosphere so would need to diffuse out of any ruptures, which is a slow process (although at higher altitudes it will start faster). Having the dry ice increase pressure and push the helium out is a good idea, forcing the opponent lower than you (limiting their range) and encouraging them to make a landing as long as they have enough gas to make it a landing and not a crash. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Jan 20 at 19:29
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Airships are big, slow, and vulnerable, so one would want engagements to begin as far away as possible. For 21st century technology, a couple of good options are

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  • $\begingroup$ Could you provide some sources for the slow and vulnerable? How easy would they be destroyed do you think? $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Jan 19 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Demigan Even the fastest airship ever designed had a peak speed of less than 100 mph, slower than WW2, let alone 21st c., aircraft. As for vulnerability, there isn't any real reason to believe a 20mm cannon round wouldn't easily pass through the gas cells easily, causing loss of lift, and, as others have pointed out, armoring the gas cells is impractical because of the gargantuan size of the craft. $\endgroup$ Jan 19 at 22:57

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